Wildcats Ready for NCAA Tournament Opener Against Stony Brook

DES MOINES, Iowa – The last time Houston hosted the Final Four was in 2011. Kentucky struggled on the road throughout that season before eventually coming into its own as the calendar flipped to March. It earned a No. 4 seed, went through a difficult region and advanced to Houston.

Kentucky vs. Stony Brook
Thur., March 17 - 9:40 p.m. ET
Wells Fargo Arena
Des Moines, Iowa
Game Notes: UK Get Acrobat Reader | SBU Get Acrobat Reader
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UK 2015-16 Team Stats SBU
26-8 Record 26-6
.479 FG% .476
.400 Opp FG% .404
.370 3FG% .372
.683 FT% .672
79.7 PPG 76.8
38.3 RPG 39.6
5.6 BPG 4.6
14.4 APG 16.6
5.6 SPG 6.2
Five years later, Houston is once again hosting the Final Four, Kentucky (26-8) is once again a No. 4 seed, and the Wildcats are once again beginning to come into their own.

“We had two tough games (last week),” head coach John Calipari said referring to the Southeastern Conference Tournament. “I mean, both Texas A&M and Georgia were wars. Alabama even played pretty good against us that first night. So, we got prepared that way. From this point, this team is empowered and they have to play confident, and that means they’ve got to help each other play confident.”

Kentucky is 5-0 under Coach Cal in the first round and has advanced to at least the Elite Eight each of the five years it has made the NCAA Tournament under the Hall of Famer. Historically, Kentucky is 2-0 in the first round as a No. 4 seed, including most recently in that 2011 season when it defeated Princeton 59-57 on a last-second shot by Brandon Knight.

Just as that was a difficult game, Coach Cal believes Thursday’s game against Stony Brook (26-6) will also challenge his team.

“This will not be a typical 4-13 (seed) game,” Calipari said. “It will not be typical and we know that. We’re going to have to have one of our better efforts to win the game.”

A first-time participant in the NCAA Tournament, Stony Brook earned a ticket to the Big Dance by defeating Vermont in the America East Conference Tournament Championship. In that game, star forward Jameel Warney showed why he’s a three-time conference player of the year, as he scored 43 points on 18-of-22 shooting.

Entering Thursday’s game, Warney will be the top priority for a UK defense working to regain its footing after allowing 1.23 points per possession against Georgia, its third most this season, and 1.07 points per possession against Texas A&M.

“He’s a beast,” said Isaiah Briscoe, who attended the same high school as Warney. “He’s dominant down low. He’s actually the second-leading scorer in school history at our school. Yeah, that’s pretty much it. He’s a great guy. He’s a good basketball player.”

After losing four its first eight games of the season, the Seawolves won 18 straight games from Dec. 17 to Feb. 14. Among Stony Brook’s six losses this season was an overtime loss at Vanderbilt in which it led by three with 10 minutes to play. Warney finished 22 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in that game, while limiting 7-foot Vanderbilt center Damian Jones to 13 points and six rebounds.

If Kentucky is going to advance to the second round, it will have to not only limit Warney, but get significant production from at least two of its bigs.

“People are having a lot of great big men coming up on their teams, so it all depends on if we’re ready for the games and we’re prepared,” Marcus Lee said. “There have been games where we’ve kind of been no-show, and that’s the kind of stuff we can’t do here.”

In addition to Warney and the normal scouting process, Kentucky also has to be wary of guarding against overlooking the America East champions.

“They run great stuff high/low, slip screens and do stuff to post their big guy and they do a great job so we can lose the game,” Coach Cal said. “The thing about being in Kentucky is everyone we play is someone's Super Bowl. If we don't play we lose because the other team is going to play out of their minds. … It's what being at Kentucky is. So I'm not worried about that. We may get beat anyway, but I think our kids will play.”

Having that experience of “being everyone’s Super Bowl,” as Coach Cal said, should help.

“They’re going to come in with nothing to lose and they’re going to be excited,” Derek Willis said. “We just have to match their intensity and keep the pressure on them and keep playing.”

“I think honestly it’s just the environment of being at Kentucky,” Lee said. “It’s a survive-or-die kind of place. That being that setting the whole year kind of sets you to be ready.”

Building off that, the two programs’ histories are quite different. While Kentucky is making its 55th NCAA Tournament appearance, Stony Brook is in just its first. Kentucky, which has played on national TV in every game this season, is used to the lights and the cameras, for the Seawolves, it was a sight to behold.

“When our team went to CBS Sports and met with that crew that was amazing,” Stony Brook guard Carson Puriefoy said, “and just to see all the things that went into the broadcast, and being on national television was amazing.”

Because Kentucky is on TV so often, the Seawolves joked that they may have a leg up in the scouting process.

“Being able to see them anytime you turn on ESPN or any sports channel, it kinda give us a head start,” Rayshaun McGrew said. “We kinda know what the guys are about. And us being a low program, we're under the radar. So I feel like we have got our first step on them right now in our advantage is, so it's exciting to get to play against them.”

During the actual scouting process, Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell said the Wildcats’ speed concerns him, calling Tyler Ulis “a one-man wrecking crew,” and praising Jamal Murray for his ability to go on runs.

With the historical success, potent backcourt and all-around talent, Kentucky enters Thursday’s game as the prohibitive favorite, but the Seawolves each said that that was quite alright with them.

“We have the most confidence in the world with us 14 on the team,” Warney said. “So, it really doesn’t matter if people aren’t giving us a shot. We know what we can do.”

Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament

Kentucky will make its nation-leading 55th all-time appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2016. The Wildcats are 120-48 (.714) all-time in NCAA Tournament games and have advanced to 17 Final Fours. Kentucky will take a No. 4 seed into the East Region beginning on Thursday vs. Stony Brook.

It is the fourth time in program history the Wildcats have been a No. 4 seed, where UK is 7-3 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 is 44-10 in tournament openers and has won 22 of its last 23 first-round tournament games. Kentucky has never played in Des Moines, Iowa in the NCAA Tournament.

Kentucky is 22-4 (.846) in NCAA Tournament games under the direction of Calipari. Calipari is 47-15 (.758) as a head coach in NCAA Tournament games, the second-highest winning percentage among active coaches.

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.

Nation's Leaders

UK leads the nation in all-time NCAA Tournament victories with 120. It also leads the country in wins in the tournament since 2010, when John Calipari first led the Wildcats into the Big Dance:

22 - Kentucky
17 - Duke
15 - Louisville, Michigan State
14 - Wisconsin
13 - Florida, Kansas

Calipari in the NCAA Tournament

Head coach John Calipari will coach in his 17th NCAA tournament in 2016. Kentucky is 22-4 (.846) in tournament games under the direction of Calipari. He is 47-15 (.758) as a head coach in NCAA Tournament games, the highest winning percentage among active coaches.

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 Final Fours (1988, 89, 90, 91, 92). Calipari has led UK to four Final Fours in five years and leads the country with five Final Four appearances since 2008. He has advanced teams to six Final Fours in his on-court career, which is tied for the fifth most by a coach all-time. Only three coaches all-time have appeared in four of five Final Fours (Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski and John Wooden).

Of Calipari’s 15 eliminations in the NCAA Tournament, he has only lost twice to double-digit seeds. He’s never lost to a team seeded lower than 10th. Other than the 2014 title game, in nine of his last 10 NCAA Tournaments, he had not lost to a seed lower than No. 3.