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The We’re Coming Back ‘Cats

It’s officially time to get that “Time For 9″ StraitPinkie shirt out of the closet and get the wrinkles out. Get rid of those stains from the tears you shed after the national title game, and get dapper. With the announcement the Harrison twins will be returning to Kentucky, John Calipari holds onto every player in his 2013 “best ever on paper” recruiting class sans James Young and Julius Randle. Kentucky fans were already excited about the loaded frontcourt coming to the floor next season, now they have to be in a state of euphoria.

Andrew Harrison1 The Were Coming Back Cats

Reasons For Returning

Outside of Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress was the easiest choice for me to stay at Kentucky for another year. A 6’9” power forward who shoots okay and rebounds sometimes is not exactly getting the NBA scouts salivating. When Poythress puts the “power” in power forward and plays consistent, then we’ll talk.

Willie Cauley-Stein was a bit of a surprise for everyone, including head coach John Calipari. From what I gather, Cauley-Stein really loves school and playing at UK. He’s not in any hurry to make those millions while he can improve his draft stock every year he stays in Lexington. The kid is just different, and that’s why I like him.

Dakari Johnson had a strong case to enter in the NBA Draft. He became a starter, and shined the brightest on the big stage. Without his contributions, Kentucky does not make the run to the Final Four. I picked Johnson to leave, but only because of the plethora of big men the ‘Cats will have next year. I assumed one of those big men would go, but I’m happy I was wrong.

I really had my doubts about Aaron and Andrew Harrison. I knew they should have stayed another year, but I never imagined they would actually return. When rumors of being a fringe 1st round pick and spending some time in the D-League start floating around, I guess it could scare a kid back to school. Plus, I know the loss to Connecticut really left a sour taste. I’m happy they are back and I know they want another shot at that national championship.

McDonalds The Were Coming Back Cats

The New Guys

So much is being made about the returning players, Kentucky’s 2014 recruiting class is getting a little overshadowed. That’s pretty crazy considering they are the 2nd best class, and are all considered 5-star recruits. 5-foot-9 Chicago point guard Tyler Ulis didn’t get rave reviews when he was offered by Calipari. The immediate fear of having a small point guard again raised some concern. Let’s set the record Strait, Ulis can flat-out ball. He is the purest of point guards, loves to pass and has a deadly jumper. He is not Ryan Harrow 2.0. I can’t see Ulis starting yet, but how many assists can one guy get with three 7-footers to throw the lob to?

Devin Booker may become the first knockdown shooter since Doron Lamb in 2012. Yes, I remember Kyle Wiltjer but his shooting numbers tanked before leaving Lexington. Along with Indiana commit James Blackmon Jr., Booker is regarded as the best shooter in the 2014 class. While Lamb had a better mid-range game, Booker is better at driving to the basket. At 6-foot-5, he’s already a matchup nightmare for a shooting guard and is not shy about seeking contact.

If a freshman starts next season, it may be Trey Lyles. The 6-f0ot-10 true power-forward can stretch a defense to the 3-point line. What is more impressive than his size and physical ability is his basketball IQ. If Alex Poythress cannot keep his beast mode on, Lyles will take his place.

Karl-Anthony Towns may be one of the most impressive prospects I have ever seen. He has the skills of a guard at 7-feet tall, can shoot a consistent 3-pointer and should be considered the crown jewel of this class. The kid is already a dynamite athlete, and he has yet to fully mature. After a kinesiologist visit, Towns recently discovered he is capable of growing three more inches. Open your nearest dictionary, look up the word “beast”.

Unfinished Business 300x150 The Were Coming Back Cats

Unfinished Business

As the Harrison twins put it, Kentucky has some unfinished business. The expectations will be the same, but they will have the experience they lacked as freshman. The roster will include nine McDonald’s All-Americans and the last two Mr. Basketball winners in the state of Kentucky. It’s only 175 days till Big Blue Madness.

Wildcats To Draft ‘Cats: Who Goes and Who Stays?

Since John Calipari has taken the helm at Kentucky, he has always said their season doesn’t end until after the NBA Draft. His “players-first” mentality is admired and annoyed simultaneously. Kentucky will always have at least one huge draft prospect, while others will have to make the crucial decision on returning to Lexington or diving into the riches of the NBA.

Willie Cauley Stein Wildcats To Draft Cats: Who Goes and Who Stays?‘Cats keep their Willie. Lee returns, too.

Willie Cauley-Stein could have left Kentucky after his freshman year. The 7-footer was heavily sought after, but the uncertainty of where he would be drafted kept him in Lexington. Another year, another decision loomed. This time, many will have to wonder if his ankle injury suffered in the NCAA Tournament game vs. Louisville is what ultimately keeps Cauley-Stein in Lexington for another season. With his decision to stay, I wonder what kind of domino effect it will have on other players. Does this mean Dakari Johnson is gone? What is the extent of that ankle injury?

Marcus lee1 Wildcats To Draft Cats: Who Goes and Who Stays?

This time of year has almost as much guessing as the recruiting process that brought these extraordinary athletes to UK. As of today, two players have decided to stay at Kentucky for another season and forego the NBA Draft. The simple fact that Marcus Lee had a “decision” to make has to reflect on the kind of prospect he can be. Right now, I see more of his all-state volleyball player rather than his basketball skills. Lee’s decision to stay was an obvious one, and I’m excited to watch him for another year.


Who Goes?

Julius Randle Wildcats To Draft Cats: Who Goes and Who Stays?

The most obvious defection is Julius Randle. He is a guaranteed lottery pick, and will more than likely not fall out of the Top-10. While I’ve heard comparison’s to LeBron, I rarely saw that at Kentucky. Yes, he can drive to the bucket at 6-foot-9, two-fifty and dunk all over you. However, Randle needs some handles and needs to develop that outside shot away from the paint.

James Young1 Wildcats To Draft Cats: Who Goes and Who Stays?

James Young is a freak athlete with a streaky outside shot. Coming out of high school, he had the reputation as a knock down outside shooter. In my opinion, Young was not a knock down shooter in his first year at UK. He can score in bunches, and has the size at 6’6” to be a match-up nightmare. If his shot is off, he doesn’t have a lot of bright spots in other areas of his game. His attacks at the basket are often through a lot of traffic, and his decision on when to drive or retreat needs to improve at the next level. And defense? Don’t get me started. Just watch the national title game if you need a refresher.

Dakari Johnson Wildcats To Draft Cats: Who Goes and Who Stays?

Maybe a surprise to some, but I believe Dakari Johnson will not return to Kentucky. With the additions of Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles, Kentucky will have a very loaded front-court. Especially wiith WCS and Lee returning to school, I think Johnson will declare. Johnson can claim that he was chosen to start over a veteran on a team that went to the championship game. He played very well in considerable minutes, and played his best on the biggest stage. I hope I’m wrong, but I think he’s gone.

Who Stays?

Alex Poythress 300x144 Wildcats To Draft Cats: Who Goes and Who Stays?

We already know about Cauley-Stein and Lee, so who will join them on the UK roster next season? My most obvious answer here is Alex Poythress. I really wonder if he will be the most highly ranked recruit to ever stay at a major program all four years. At this point, I can’t see Poythress leaving for the NBA until he graduates. While he did improve this past season, Poythress just hasn’t shown enough to get himself into the draft. The battle for playing time will be rough once again with a true power-forward Trey Lyles coming next season.

To Tough To Call

Andrew Harrison Wildcats To Draft Cats: Who Goes and Who Stays?

The only other players that have a legitimate shot at the NBA next season is Aaron and Andrew Harrison. Today, head coach John Calipari revealed his “tweak” that spurred his ‘Cats to an improbable national title shot. He had to get Andrew Harrison to pass the ball more. Andrew Harrison is not a true point guard, he’s not a freak athlete and he won’t blow by you. He’s very strong on the drive and made better decisions as the year progressed. His size will always be a problem for smaller guards, but smaller guards have seemed to be a problem for him as well. (See also: Russ Smith (LOU), Bryce Cotton (PROV), Shabazz Napier (UCONN).

Aaron Harrison2 Wildcats To Draft Cats: Who Goes and Who Stays?

Aaron Harrison is labeled as a shooting guard, but he didn’t shoot the ball exceptionally well all season. He was never a knock down shooter, even though his clutch shots in the NCAA Tournament made most question the size of his…uh..guts. Like his brother, he made a living off driving to the basket.

Why They Stay: NBA Draft projections do not favor either of the Harrison twins. Coming into Kentucky, they were labeled as lottery picks. Now, they are fringe first round selections. Contracts become non-guaranteed after the last pick of the first round. Would that be enough to scare the Harrison’s back to Kentucky?

Why They Go: A small rumor began days after the championship game that the Harrison’s didn’t believe they were showcased well at Kentucky and were leaning towards the NBA Draft. In my opinion, the system head coach John Calipari runs does not showcase any one person. The dribble drive is supposed to unleash every player, not just ones named “Harrison”.

With incoming competition from point guard Tyler Ulis and shooting guard Devin Booker, will that push the Harrison’s away from Lexington? They came into this past season as THE guys. Keep calm, the Harrison twins are coming. Next year, they will no longer be the new kids on the block. Ulis is a pure point guard that is an extremely willing passer despite having a deadly jumper. Devin Booker could be the first knock down shooter for Kentucky since Doron Lamb left in 2012. Both Ulis and Booker can and will compete for starter’s minutes. I don’t know if the Harrison’s want to run the risk of being shuffled to the bench.




Kentucky One-And-Done’s Proven Productive In NBA

A recent article from Sports Illustrated attempts to examine each draft class since the “One-And-Done era began in 2006. Not shocking to anyone that hasn’t been living under a rock since 2008, Kentucky is well represented in the analysis. The article labeles players as stars, rotation players, bit contributors or busts. Just how well have the former ‘Cats fared? Remarkably well, actually.

Archie Goodwin Kentucky One And Dones Proven Productive In NBA

2013 saw only two ‘Cats enter in the NBA Draft, and only one of those players has been able to take the court. Archie Goodwin is labeled as a “bit contributor”. While he’s not apart of Phoenix’s starting rotation, he has been a solid addition to the Suns bench. Nerlens Noel is still recovering from his torn ACL that he suffered at Kentucky, and his grade is labeled as N/A. The  SI article does not list any “stars” for this draft class. The highest ranking player was former Kansas Jayhawk Ben McLemore, who was graded as a rotation player.

Anthony Davis Kentucky One And Dones Proven Productive In NBA

2012′s biggest star came straight from Lexington to the NBA, and has earned his star ranking. Anthony Davis is backing up his #1 overall draft pick status and has the highest ceiling of anyone in recent memory. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist makes the list as a rotation player for Charlotte. MKG has steadily improved his game since entering the league, and is finally on a team headed to the playoffs. Marquis Teague makes the list as a bit contributor, which may be somewhat generous. I’m not sure I could grade him as a “bust”, but Teague’s absence from the floor in Chicago, his D-League stints, and a trade to Brooklyn makes “contributor” seems generous at best.

Brandon Knight Kentucky One And Dones Proven Productive In NBA

In 2011, Kentucky’s Brandon Knight and Enes Kanter both make the list as rotation players. Knight blossomed in Detroit, but was traded to the Bucks after the Pistons acquired Brandon Jennings. A change of scenery hasn’t stopped Knight’s progression as one of the most explosive young guards in the league. Enes Kanter has always been a solid but quiet contributor for the Jazz. He is now labeled as their starting center. Both Knight and Kanter’s grades are hurt by the fact that neither player will be playing playoff basketball for the foreseeable future.

John Wall Demarcus Cousins Kentucky One And Dones Proven Productive In NBA

201o was Kentucky’s best year for producing the best crop of NBA talent. John Wall, Demarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe were graded as stars. Wall is also living up to his #1 overall draft pick status and has the Wizards heading to the playoffs. With his emotions in check, Cousins is one of the best scoring centers in the league. Bledsoe’s star ranking was perhaps a stretch, despite the fact that he has anchored a serious playoff push for the Phoenix Suns. I see why the article names him a star, but I just haven’t felt like he has made the impacts of Wall, Bledsoe and Davis. Mixed in with all the great reviews 2010 had to offer, here comes the bad. The one Kentucky player that received a bust grade was Daniel Orton. His lack of playing time in Oklahoma City and being cut by the horrendously bad Philadelphia 76ers makes you think the grade is fair. Orton was scouted with a tremendously high upside with a huge body to boot. For one reason or another, Orton’s game just hasn’t cracked into that potential he was scouted with.

Terrence Jones Kentucky One And Dones Proven Productive In NBA

I personally believe the article has completely missed one Kentucky player. I would firmly place Terrence Jones on the list and give him the grade of at least a rotation player. Jones has played some dynamite basketball for Houston, and his a key cog in their push towards a deep run in the playoffs.

You can read the article and it’s entirety right here.

From Rock Bottom To Runner-Up

Kentucky basketball From Rock Bottom To Runner Up

I’ll admit, the sting is still there. Kentucky’s loss in the national title game hit me pretty hard. The loss to UConn reminded me of 1997′s overtime loss to Arizona in the final game. The west-coast Wildcats broke my nine-year-old heart, and the Huskies were added to my list of teams I like to despise more than others. I had to take a hiatus and realize just how far this team had to come. Once I did, I realized how proud I am of the result and the state I live in.

John Calipari Ejected From Rock Bottom To Runner Up

The loss at South Carolina was the rock bottom for me. The heavily favored ‘Cats were supposed to blow the barn doors off of a Gamecocks team that had only won three of their 15 conference games. We all had to sit and watch this lowly SEC bottom-dweller outplay the second best team in the conference on their home floor. We watched head coach John Calipari limp away to the showers midway into the second half after being ejected. The coach’s bum hip wasn’t the only thing that was going to bother him on this night.

When Kentucky loses, the media immediately reacts by asking “What’s wrong with Kentucky?” Fingers are pointed, and criticism hits an all-time high. Pat Forde and Pete Thamel will write their condescending articles about  the players, to the program, and the coaching staff. In the midst of all the heavy negativity, Aaron Harrison publicly said he still had the faith that this team could do something special. Even for the most die hard Kentucky homers, the season did not have the feel of a national title contender. Heck, Kentucky barely had the feel of an SEC championship contender.

Aaron Harrison From Rock Bottom To Runner Up

As everyone else, I’m very anxious to hear these “tweaks” that John Calipari installed on these ‘Cats to reverse the avalanche that was the 2013-14 season. While most wanted him to be even harder on his 18-19 year old stars, he realized he may have been pushing them too hard. Could the excruciating pain in his hip been a factor? I firmly believe one of these tweaks was a self adjustment. Calipari had to push aside the pain, aggravation and some pride to get his players believing again.

The very first glimmer of hope came in the first SEC Tournament game vs. LSU. The Tigers outplayed the ‘Cats in a regular season matchup in Baton Rouge, and were narrowly defeated by a Julius Randle putback in the closing moments in Rupp. LSU was labeled as a matchup nightmare for Kentucky with their quick guards and bulk down low. The 18-point throttling proved to everyone that these ‘Cats can be for real and LSU was not a “problem” anymore.

James Young From Rock Bottom To Runner Up

Despite being a James Young slip away from the SEC Tournament crown, the team was riding a serious high heading into the NCAA Tournament. The Big Blue Nation was in hopes of a decent seeding in the big dance, spurring on the hopes of a shot at #9. As the Midwest bracket was revealed, the murder’s row to the Final Four was immediately evident. Kentucky would immediately face their most physical opponent all season vs. Kansas State. Awaiting in the wings was three of the four Final Four participants from last season, including their arch rival and a 35-0 Wichita State team.

Aaron Harrison1 From Rock Bottom To Runner Up

In miraculous fashion, the Wildcats seemingly avoided every major landmine on their way to the Final Four. James Young’s heroics vs. Wichita State “shocked” the nation’s first undefeated team since 2004. Despite losing Willie Cauley-Stein and trailing Louisville 16-5, the ‘Cats clipped the Cardinals behind the first Aaron Harrison dagger. While it wasn’t a game winner, the go-ahead three-pointer with :39 left in the game propelled the ‘Cats passed their in-state rival. While it was not a torn ACL, Cauley-Stein’s injury was serious enough to knock the ‘Cats biggest shot blocking presence for the rest of the tournament. From that point on, they were winning it for Willie.

Aaron Harrison From Rock Bottom To Runner Up

A pair of highly skilled and veteran Big 10 clubs separated this team full of fantastic freshmen from a shot at the national title. The Courier Journal’s Kyle Tucker tweeted his thoughts on the upcoming game with Michigan. Tucker believed if the ‘Cats could beat the Wolverines, they could handle Wisconsin and play for the national title. Wisconsin plays a very unique style of basketball by playing the full length of the shot-clock and running their offense to perfection. Michigan had the same genetic make-up of the Badgers, but their style was less restricting on running the clock. Ironically, both teams suffered the very same fate in dramatic fashion. Both games could have easily been the end of this meteoric rise for Kentucky. Thanks to two Aaron Harrison daggers and his big..umm..guts..the ‘Cats would get their chance at a 9th national title.

Kentucky 300x292 From Rock Bottom To Runner Up

All of the anger, frustration and mental anguish I experienced watching the closing moments of the title game made me realize my true feelings. Look how far Kentucky had to go, look what they’ve done to just get this far. So many times when the team could have given up on the season or in a game, they played through. I am so spoiled and blessed to be apart of this great tradition, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s going to be a long time till November…

Nick’d Up: Cats magical run falls one game short

uconn640 500x234 Nickd Up: Cats magical run falls one game short

We were on the air on ESPN 680 until 2 a.m. last night. That is why this is a day late. But, it’s also given me time to reflect on what this season was. And what it means.

Here are my thoughts on Kentucky’s disappointing loss to UConn in the championship game.

For the first time since Kentucky played Kansas State in the opener, I thought the Wildcats were going to win. I thought they matched up too well with UConn. I thought their bigs would have a field day.

I was wrong. And it sucked.

As they did the entire tournament, the Cats fell down early. Cal blamed it on them being freshmen. I’m not sure what to blame it on, but at some point digging yourself a hole early is bound to catch up with you, right?

On Monday night. In the National Championship game, it did.

Yeah, the Wildcats got back in the game. Trimming that 15 point first half deficit to four at the half. Just as had been the case the entire tournament, you felt like Kentucky was in good shape at half time. Down just four in a game where you felt like it could be much more.

But, it felt a little different to me. In a game where I thought Kentucky’s bigs would dominate, I didn’t see it at all and that concerned me.

In the second half, the Cats trimmed it to one several times, but could never get over the hump. Every time they got the ball down one, they failed to score. The first time they got it to one was the first bucket of the second half, an Aaron Harrison three that cut it to 35-34. But, Ryan Boatright hit a crazy difficult shot to answer after James Young missed a jumper that would have given Kentucky the lead.

The Huskies then answered with a 14-4 run that gave them a 48-39 lead.

Then a James Young monster jam poster cram would initiate another Kentucky run, getting them right back into the game. This time an 8-0 run that would again cut the lead right back to one.

But, Aaron Harrison would miss a three that would give Kentucky the lead. Then UConn would sandwich a Julius Randle layup with two humungous threes. One huge answer by Shabazz Napier and the other a wide open look by Niels Giffey.

The lead was then 54-49 Connecticut with 6:19 to go.

Kentucky would not get it closer than four the rest of the way.

There are a lot of things you can point to as to why Kentucky lost this game.

The first of which is that their bigs didn’t really play a huge role. They were outrebounded by an undersized Huskies team and didn’t even come close to dominating the offensive glass. Something we have seen this Kentucky team do, even when they were struggling to beat the lower echelon teams of the SEC.

A lot of Kentucky’s struggles on offense can be credited to Randle not having one of his best games. You can look at his seven field goal attempts and say he didn’t get enough touches. But, how many of his field goal attempts this year came off of offensive put backs?

This just wasn’t the same Randle. He shied away from the rock at times. He shied away from the moment at times. And that is a big reason why Kentucky lost.

You also have to credit Connecticut with the way they guarded Kentucky. Remember, this is the same team that beat Michigan State and made Florida look entirely inept in beating them to get to the championship game.

Maybe I didn’t give them enough credit coming into this thing.

Their defense starts with their two guards up top as you must constantly be aware of Napier and Boatright’s ball hawking abilities. And while that did have a factor in the outcome, their team defense is really what did Kentucky in.

Unlike any of the teams that have faced Kentucky in the tournament, UConn found a way to crowd the lane and limit the Wildcats ability to get the ball into the middle. And when Kentucky couldn’t get the ball in the middle of the lane through penetration, it kept them from getting it up on the rim for those offensive rebounds to be had.

To me, that was the difference in the game. You can point at Cal’s insistence to not stay in the zone. You can point at Napier and Boatright’s big, tough shots. You can point at Giffey finally knocking down a few shots in the Big Dance.

But, all of that is no different from anything we have seen all tournament. All tournament, Kentucky’s opponents have refused to back down on the offensive end. Remember, Cleanthony Early did the same thing. Luke Hancock did the same thing. Glenn Robinson Jr. did the same thing.

All tournament long, Kentucky’s opponents have hit big shots down the stretch.

But, on this night, Kentucky ran out of answers. Aaron Harrison didn’t have one more miracle.

If you’re still looking for answers, yeah there are a few other things that you can look at. You can look at the Wildcats’ struggles at the line. It’s hard to win games when you shoot 13-24 from the line. Especially when you are facing a team that shoots 10-10 from the stripe.

You can look at Calipari not fouling late. To me, the issue was not fouling right away after Young’s layup cut it to 58-54 with 1:09 to go. The Wildcats had only committed five fouls at the point, meaning they would have to foul twice to send UConn to the line. If you foul right away, you are now at six fouls and the next one sends the Huskies to the stripe. Then you can play defense, try to get a steal, and be selective on who you send to the line.

Instead, they waited till :54 seconds remained on the clock to commit their sixth foul. Now the shot clock resets. You’re down four. If you don’t foul, the best case scenario is you get a stop after they run 30 seconds or so off the clock. Then you’re coming down the other way down four with 20 to 25 seconds left.

Meaning you just allowed nearly 50 seconds to come off the clock, with no chance to cut into the UConn lead. That’s just too much time.

Then they fouled anyways Kromah got behind the defense. And he knocked down both. Now you’re down six with :25 to go.

I understand Calipari’s reasoning. You play defense and get a stop and you have a chance. Plus, the Huskies simply were not missing free throws. But, the real issue was not committing the sixth foul until :54 remained. That was 15 seconds you needed and it hurt.

And this one hurts. Any time you get this far and lose it’s going to hurt. Getting this far is so difficult and opportunities to win championships simply are not there for the taking every year.

But, as I said all night long on the post game show last night, after the hurt goes away and you’re able to sit back and look at this run, you’ll realize how special this thing was.

The Wildcats entered the Big Dance with really no expectations. Yeah, we knew the possibility of them making a run was there. Simply because of the talent that this team had. But, we hadn’t seen it all year. Why would this time be any different?

But, it was different. This team came together. And boy, was it fun to watch. And boy, did they put on a show?

En route the National Title game, these Wildcats put on one of the greatest displays in the history of the tournament. They beat three of the four Final Four teams from a year ago. They beat a team that was the first team to enter the Big Dance undefeated for the first time since 1991. They beat the defending National Champion. They beat last year’s runner-up. They beat their rival.

And they beat all of these teams playing their best basketball. And they did it in dramatic fashion.

Win or lose in the National Title game, it’s still kind of tough because you’re never going to see that exact team ever play again. Of course, winning makes it easier. But, you can’t tell me there wasn’t a hint of sadness when you saw Anthony Davis cutting down the nets in 2012, knowing that him, MKG, Darius Miller and the rest of those Cats would never take the court again.

Louisville fans, tell me you weren’t a little sad last year that you’d never see Siva and Gorgui play together again while they were cutting down the nets.

The goal is to win a championship. At least that is the case when you play basketball at Kentucky or Louisville.

When you fall short of that goal, there is sure to be disappointment. Partially, because they lost. Partially, because the season is over.

But, let this loss by the Wildcats take nothing from this run. A miraculous run that fell just one game short.

And now we wait until November for the ball to be tipped again.

Nick’d Up: Is this real life?

nickdup 236x3001 Nickd Up: Is this real life?Like I said on Twitter…#BBN, you got one more in ya?

Wow, what a game. What a tournament run. I’ll tell you what, these Kentucky finishes are a hell of a lot better than whatever that How I Met Your Mother finale was. I mean the final HIMYM season and Kentucky’s season were comparably sucky, but the ending…HIMYM ain’t going nothing on what these Wildcats are doing at the end of their story.

It was Aaron Harrison again. From the same spot. With the clock winding down. And once again, he drained it.

Alex Poythress called them Hangers. Oddly enough, there was plenty of talk about the size of Aaron Harrison’s man parts in post game. But, can you blame them?

Last Sunday against Michigan, he was scoreless going into the final five minutes. Then he hit four huge threes to lead the Cats to victory. On Saturday night against Wisconsin, he hadn’t even attempted a three prior to his game winner. He was 2-for-7 overall.

And Wisconsin made a point of it to not allow Aaron Harrison to get going. They stayed attached to him on drives. For the most part, John Gasser did not leave him too far out of his sight.

But, when Kentucky needed it most. He stepped five feet beyond the arc. At the same wing that he knocked down the Michigan shot. With Glasser right on him. And he drained it. Again.

ukwisky640 300x140 Nickd Up: Is this real life?

And now we have Kentucky v. Connecticut in the National Championship and the Huskies will wear white as a 7-seed. It’s 7 v. 8 in the National Title game. The lowest combined seeds in the history of the title game. Two teams that didn’t even compete inthe Dance a year ago.

The Wildcats have now won 11 straight games in the NCAA Tournament. Their last loss to UConn in the Final Four in 2011.

And now I get to talk about this on the radio. Are you kidding me?

Don’t forget to join Nick Curran and myself tomorrow morning on ESPN 680 from 10 to noon. Be loud #BBN!

From Sweet To Elite, Kentucky Edges Louisville In Instant Classic

While I can’t say that last night’s performance was Kentucky’s best, they did just enough to take home a monster win. Louisville was the trendy pick for another national title game appearance, and reasonably so. They were the “hot” team coming into the tournament, and was vastly under-seeded by the committee. While Louisville plowed through the AAC Tournament, Kentucky finally found their recipe for success and was a James Young slip away from an SEC Tournament crown. Despite the loss to the top-seeded Gators, the young ‘Cats knew they had just pushed what is presumably the best team in the nation to the wire. They could play with anyone, and they needed that confidence heading into the Sweet 16 matchup with Louisville.

Kentucky’s win over Louisville in the regular season was a small respite, but everyone knew the tournament game would be much different. The stakes were  higher, and Kentucky could not have the benefit of playing on their home floor. The ‘Cats could only hope to keep Julius Randle on the floor, instead of on the bench with fouls and cramps. Louisville would lean on the emergence of Montrezl Harrell and Luke Hancock, while following behind their senior leader Russ Smith. With all these ingredients, an instant classic was born.

Harrell From Sweet To Elite, Kentucky Edges Louisville In Instant Classic

Louisville began the game like a defending national champion should. The Cardinals stretched out an 18-5 lead on their arch rival and were immediately thinking about knock out punches. The young ‘Cats looked like they were reverting back to their old ways of being a dysfunctional and stagnant offense. A couple of early fouls on Luke Hancock stifled Louisville’s attack while Kentucky settled down. Imagine you’re 18-19 years old, playing in front of 41,000+ fans, in a heated rivalry game that could end your season. Yeah, I’d be nervous too.

While Louisville was adjusting to life without Hancock, Kentucky had to immediately tweak their game plan when sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein came up gimpy during the early Louisville onslaught. You could lip read Cauley-Stein on the bench telling the trainer’s he heard something pop in his ankle. Fearing a torn ACL, he had to take off his shoe and leave for the locker room with his team steadily climbing back into the game.

In the absence of Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson’s effort and bulk underneath proved vital for Kentucky to keep pace with the Cards. What Johnson made up for in points and size, he was frequently exposed by the much quicker Louisville guards. They continued to rub off screens set by Harrell and Stephen Van Treese, leading to easy layups. Without Willie’s shot blocking ability, athleticism and having to sustain a huge punch early, Kentucky must have been ecstatic to only be down by three points at halftime.

Kentucky was able to keep Julius Randle on the floor, but they had already lost Willie Cauley-Stein for the game due to injury. James Young could not find his shot and was continually abused by Luke Hancock who scored 19 points. Russ Smith was going off for the Cards, and Montrezl Harrell was a beast on the boards despite picking up three 1st half fouls. You have to believe that one of the star freshmen for Kentucky was going to step up and lead them to victory. Julius Randle? No. Harrison Twins? No. James Young? Fouled out with 5:21 to play. A much maligned sophomore would lead the charge with 4:08 to play and the ‘Cats down 66-59.

Alex Poythress From Sweet To Elite, Kentucky Edges Louisville In Instant Classic

John Calipari said in the postgame he was begging for Alex Poythress to start playing. Poythress started by breaking through the Louisville pressure for a baseline dunk assisted by Andrew Harrison. The very next play saw Poythress block a layup attempt from Louisville’s Russ Smith, keeping the Cards lead at 66-61. As the under four minute timeout came, John Calipari rushed onto the court to embrace Alex Poythress. Calipari knew the game was far from over, and Alex Poythress was not done making his presence felt.

After the break, Julius Randle immediately drove into the paint. He planted that right pivot foot, spun to his left, and laid the ball up and off the glass for the deuce. The Cards’ lead now down to three points with only 3:14 left to play. After applying some pressure defense on Luke Hancock, Poythress forces the turnover and the ‘Cats get the ball back with 2:51 to go. The ‘Cats force feed Julius Randle once again, who misses the jumper. Randle gathers his own rebound and gets blocked by Mangok Mathiang. Poythress picks up the loose ball and powers through the outstretched arms of Montrezl Harrell for the layup plus the foul. Harrell now had four fouls, and Alex Poythress ties the game up at 66 with 2:12 to play.

In his usual frenetic pace, Russ Smith immediately tried to answer Kentucky’s 7-0 run with a 3-pointer in transition that missed. Aaron Harrison then tried to give Kentucky it’s first lead since the score was 2-0 with a driving layup that also missed. A Russ Smith turnover compiled with Montrezl Harrell picking up his 5th foul was key for the Wildcats. Alex Poythress made one of two free throws after the foul, and Kentucky took the lead at 67-66 with 1:27 to play.

Aaron Harrison From Sweet To Elite, Kentucky Edges Louisville In Instant Classic

Now trailing, Russ Smith knew he had to make something happen for Louisville. The senior guard sprinted down the floor and pulled up for a jumper that went in. The Cards now lead 68-67 with 1:10 to go. Kentucky now needed to respond once again. They put it in the hands of Julius Randle on the block. His biggest improvement throughout the year? Passing out to the shooter under pressure. Randle finds Aaron Harrison in the corner who splashes the go-ahead 3-pointer, and the ‘Cats now lead 70-68.

After a Luke Hancock missed jumper, the ball wound up in the hands of forward Wayne Blackshear. Blackshear drove against Julius Randle and tried to force one over the 6-foot-9 power forward. Randle appeared to get all ball on a huge block, but the refs called a foul and sent Blackshear to the free throw line with :14 seconds left. Blackshear only made one of two, prompting Louisville to immediately foul on the rebound by Julius Randle. With the poise of a senior, Randle calmly nailed two free throws to put the Wildcats up 72-69 with :13 seconds left.

It was Russ-diculous time once again as Smith drove against Aaron Harrison to the 3-point line. Smith went left and ran into Julius Randle who had his arms raised to the sky. Smith attempted to launch the game-tying three point shot over Randle, but it fell just short. Aaron Harrison grabbed the loose ball, got fouled, and iced the game winning free-throws for the ‘Cats.

Julius Randle1 500x361 From Sweet To Elite, Kentucky Edges Louisville In Instant Classic

Louisville coach Rick Pitino falls to 11-1 in Sweet 16 games as a coach, and the defending champions are headed home. Kentucky continues their remarkable run through the monster Midwest Region and will play Michigan on Sunday for a chance at the Final Four. Louisville’s 10 missed free-throws, and key fouls on Hancock and Harrell is what lead to their demize. Kentucky’s freshmen have officially grown up and have the poise to close out huge games.

As a final thought, I wanted to throw in this quote from Louisville’s Russ Smith. Here is his quote from the post-game interviews. Very classy, Russ. Good luck in your future endeavors.

Russ Smith quote 500x433 From Sweet To Elite, Kentucky Edges Louisville In Instant Classic



Calipari, players talk after 74-69 win over Louisville

COACH CALIPARI: Another great basketball game. Proud of my kids. Told them before the game, you’ll get punched in the mouth and you’re going to taste blood. You’re going to fight or brace yourself for the next shot. They fought. They never stopped playing. Big plays.
I will say this because he’s not up here, Alex Poythress won the game for us. We were begging him the whole game to start playing, and he played at the right time. It was unbelievable how he finished. That’s who he needs to be for us as we finish the year out.

Q. Two questions, Andrew, I saw you rolling away earlier, you were looking at your phone and you said: Oh God, you got a smile on your face. I’m curious what was it that you saw. And early on when things weren’t going right for you guys what was said in the huddle to maybe keep you from not getting your heads down or not worrying about what was happening there early on?

ANDREW HARRISON: My mom just sent me like a long, long message telling me how proud of me she was and just made me really happy.

And with so much adversity we’ve been through all year, nothing we haven’t seen. So we knew we were going to get hit and we’d have to swing back, and we did that.

Q. Aaron, the three from the corner, did you know it was good as soon as it left your hand?

AARON HARRISON: I mean, felt good. I mean, shooting the ball, you never really you’re not like guaranteed it’s going in. But it felt pretty good leaving my hands.

Q. Andrew and Julius, how much pressure did you guys feel entering this game, obviously an opportunity to go to the Elite Eight on the line?

JULIUS RANDLE: I didn’t really feel any pressure. I really wasn’t worried about where this game could take us, I was just focused on the game and the game plan that Coach had for us. And that was really all my focus, I wasn’t really worried about winning or losing.

ANDREW HARRISON: Like Julius said, every game is a big game now. Coach told us to look at it as any other game and play like that, and that’s what we did.

Q. For the players, did you guys have a chance to talk to Willie after he was hurt? Did he say anything to you, kind of how that motivated you to go out and win it for him?

DAKARI JOHNSON: Yeah, we talked to him, and he just told us just to do it for him. So we want to just play every game for him and it’s a big motivation for us.

COACH CALIPARI: The doctor told me he was absolutely going bonkers in the locker room for game, like for the team, cheering. They had to hold him down, he was going crazy.

Q. John, what do you think ultimately turned the tide that last four minutes and 11 seconds, you’re down seven points and came back?

COACH CALIPARI: Look, this game is kind of like the last game. Everybody’s talking how good it is. We just got done. We’re exhausted.

But I think it was Alex’s block that got a basket, he blocked it. And then we come down and make a basket and all of a sudden it’s five and I kept telling the guys, We’re down two baskets, just play. We’re down two goals. And we got to three points, all of a sudden just a little bit crazy and it was back on their plate.

But we’re just this team has fought the whole year. They’re maturing right before our eyes. Andrew, I said, it’s not fair what we’re asking him to do. It’s not fair. He’s a freshman and we’re asking him, I’m telling him at halftime, You’ve gotta run this team better. I’m looking at him. I’m like, I’m sorry I have to ask you to do it, but I’ve got no choice.

I look at Julius where they’re running at him, the biggest play that Julius made is the pass for 3. Instead of shooting it. Now, three weeks ago he would have shot a hook to try to get that at the basket. Now, he’s just playing the game as it comes.

And that’s what they’re playing for each other. They have finally surrendered and lost themselves in the team. It’s just taken us a long time.

Q. You had your scout team play physically, you know, this week, foul at Will, you sort of alluded that in your opening statement. But how ready were you for the physical play of Louisville and were you worried down 18 5 that you weren’t as prepared as

COACH CALIPARI: No, we were fine. I told him we took five 3 point shots. What are you doing? You took five 3 point shots and you’re not helping each other on defense. Look where you are. I told them, Tennessee was down 16, should have won their game. So just play.
What was the other question you asked me? It’s kind of late.

Q. Talked about getting prepared.

COACH CALIPARI: EJ Floreal, did he help you guys and Dominique? We just had EJ and Dominique, basically we put them in football pads and they picked a guy at full court and they hit, checked them and grabbed them and pushed them and we didn’t want to hear any excuse, we just wanted them to play and I think it got them ready for the physicalness of the game.

Q. John, on the last play, their last shot against Wichita State you mentioned that had he made the free throw you were going to foul up 3. You let it go.

COACH CALIPARI: This is a different time set. There were 13 seconds on the clock. That’s why I did it. If there were five or six seconds on the clock, we probably would have fouled, and I would have put Dakari back in the game to rebound, but then he would have had to make a free throw if he rebounded the ball.

So with 13 seconds I wasn’t going to do it. I trusted us that we were small enough we could switch everything. So we were just…

Q. I don’t know who had Russ Smith on the last play, whoever did, were you conscious that he was going to take the shot and talk about that defensive possession?

AARON HARRISON: They put him in a pick and roll and Dakari stepped up and guarded him actually, so Dakari got the stop.

COACH CALIPARI: That’s his first stop of the game. (Laughter.)

Q. For any of the players, do you feel like in the last three weeks you’ve rewritten the history of this team and how you’ll be remembered?

JULIUS RANDLE: Yeah, in a way I think we have. We just kind of had to put the past behind us and leave it where it was. It’s a new season, the postseason. That’s really all we can worry about, survive and advance, and we’ve gotta take one game at a time.

We carry momentum from the SEC Tournament and brought it to the NCAA Tournament. We’re just taking it a game at a time.

THE MODERATOR: One or two more for the student athletes, we’ll dismiss them and stay with Coach Cal.

Q. How big was Hawkins tonight coming off the bench?

A. It was great after the game. They cheered and hugged him. James got up and hugged Alex because he gave up eight straight points and almost gave up the game and Alex went in and saved us. So he hugged Alex. The guards were laughing. I mean, Dominique was terrific.
And the time he tripped I told him to post it when he was trying to drive, which was my fault. I’m looking at him like, Post the ball, and he was going to drive and tried to stop.

He’s a great kid. He was ready. I just thought it was a better game for him than Jarrod. He’s more of a pit bull. I thought he could play against those guys, and he did well.

Q. Coach and one of the players, whoever would like to answer it, there late in the ballgame, I don’t remember how much time there was, there was a timeout called. Coach, you were meeting with the players at half court telling them to get over it and you got in the huddle with them and a lot of excitement and

COACH CALIPARI: I ran out to hug Julius or Alex. I ran out to hug Alex, I think, because he had done something that we needed him to win this game.

And he started playing the last five minutes of the game. And I just was so happy. I must have had 50 texts and as I paged through them everybody was saying, I’m so happy for Alex.
We’re all happy for him. We all know how good he is. We’re just trying to get him out of his own self’s way, smile, have fun playing and do what you do.

He did. And I hope now this is how he plays from this time on.

THE MODERATOR: We’re going to dismiss the student athletes and we’ll take a few more for coach.

Q. Cal, the play that Julius makes, the pass he makes to Aaron at the corner, that’s a play he’s had chances to make during the year and didn’t. How much does that say in terms of how much they’ve come to trust one another?

COACH CALIPARI: That’s one of the things that we’ve really talked to individuals. And I said it before. I told them after the game again, if this was a 25 game season, thank goodness it was a 30 game season, we had five more games to get this thing right and get the plane down before the runway ran out and we were in grass.

Having to define roles is part of what you have to do as a coach. And we hadn’t done it enough. And so now I think the roles are a little more defined in how we want guys to play.
I’ll tell you who else I was happy with. Dakari played well today. Dakari played well today. That 3 point play, that made free throw, that was huge. That just kept eating in their lead to where we could get it close.

So it was, whether it be the guards doing what we were doing, you know. So I’m just happy for them. A bunch of young kids out there having a ball playing, trying, fighting, knowing that we make dumb mistakes, we break down at times, but we don’t stop. And that’s all you want from your team.

Q. Did you have a chance to talk to Willie at all, any idea what happened?
COACH CALIPARI: It’s not a good ankle injury. Let me just put it that way.

Q. Cal, has this team gone from whatever you felt about it, I know you said you never felt bad about them

COACH CALIPARI: I never give up on a team or a player, ever. And this team, I kept telling all you guys, it was the fun thing to do to attack these kids individually. They’re no good, they can’t play, they’re this, they’re that. It’s one thing after another.

They took it on and they pushed it aside, and they kept trying to get better. They kept believing in each other. They kept believing in our staff.

But I don’t give up on teams. I wasn’t going to give up on this team. It was just a matter of time, and thank goodness we had enough time with all freshmen to get it right before things ended.

Q. Is this sort of turning into maybe one of your more rewarding groups because of that?

COACH CALIPARI: I don’t want to say that. I’ve coached 20 some teams and I’ve had many, many play well in March and many, many play their best basketball at this time, and I’m not going to say that. There’s no favorite team or favorite player. I’ve done this too long.

Q. Like you mentioned about the fight with this team, LSU, they got down 22 6, they did come back. Florida, they had a 15 0 run, even though they lost, was that the one thing you could hang your hat on even when this team was struggling?

COACH CALIPARI: Well, just so you know, before the game, our staff talked today and we knew how this would start. They’re going to pee down their leg is what I said. They will pee down their leg, and let’s just be positive and keep them going. Am I allowed to say that, John?

Q. I’m okay with it.

COACH CALIPARI: And they did. And they took all jumpers, why would you take jumpers because you don’t want to be aggressive, you’re afraid you may make a mistake. You shoot 3s, it’s an easy shot. It’s a bailout. And we almost expected it. And we did expect it.
And I told him at halftime we expected you to start like that. We were down six against Wichita you’re down three, just play.

THE MODERATOR: Anything else for Coach? Thank you, Rick. We’ll see you tomorrow.

COACH CALIPARI: Did you say Rick?


COACH CALIPARI: Okay, Tim. (Laughter.)

THE MODERATOR: I blame it on the hour.

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