JAMIE H. VAUGHT: Final Four-Bound Wildcats Enjoying "Once-A-Lifetime" Season
By Jamie H. Vaught
Playing as a team has sure paid huge dividends this season for the 38-0 Wildcats, who are heading for the school's 17th Final Four appearance, second most in NCAA history.
When UK's Karl-Anthony Towns, the second-team All-American by the Associated Press, pumped in 25 points against Notre Dame in Elite Eight this past weekend, it only marked the sixth time this season that a Kentucky player had scored at least 20 points.
Just six times in 38 games? Yep, that's right. That means the players are sharing many roles and minutes on the hardwood floor and the squad has a balanced scoring attack with seven players averaging 6.5 points. In addition, the eighth and ninth guy on the scoring list are Tyler Ulis (5.6 points) and injured Alex Poythress (5.5 points), respectively.
That's not a problem for this wildly popular Kentucky club. The players have accepted their team-oriented responsibilities and are willing to sacrifice their individual stardom or glowing statistics to help the team win. They simply have packed away their prep All-American egos.
It's the major reason why the talented and unselfish Cats are having an once-a-lifetime season of success.
Much of the credit goes to Kentucky coach John Calipari, who somehow was able to persuade the players to embrace a new concept in college basketball, a two-platoon system, simply because the overloaded Cats had too many good players this season.
"It's just buy into the program, buy in the process," said Towns. "We did a great job of just sharing the ball and sharing minutes and coming out with the record we have right now, looks like a big success."
Added first-team All-American Willie Cauley-Stein, a junior who missed the Final Four last season due to an injury, "You've just got to trust what Coach is saying. Coming here, like he told every one of us straight up, that you're not going to be the man of the team. You're going to have to sacrifice and that's why we're able to play the way we are just because everybody bought in."
However, that doesn't mean it's all that easy to sacrifice for the good of the team.
"It's tough," said 6-6 guard Andrew Harrison. "It's tough sometimes, but when you're winning like this and you have so much talent on your team and all the guys get along, it's not like we have ego problems or anything like that, so it's fun. It's worth the sacrifice definitely."
The Wildcats say they aren't very concerned about their individual statistics. They also understand the NBA scouts are searching for more than just the numbers. Asked if they felt their NBA draft stock has declined because they aren't playing as many minutes due to two-platoon scheme.
"No, I don't think so," said Andrew Harrison. "We all are evaluated the same and they (scouts) come watch practice and stuff like that. I mean it affects your numbers but I think the teams up there can really evaluate you equally as everyone else."
Commented Trey Lyles, "You're going to be evaluated either way. It doesn't matter how many minutes you play. They look a lot at winning and that's what we're doing."
A probable No. 1 NBA Draft pick in 2015, Towns added, "It's not about the minutes we get. It's about what we do with those minutes."
With the 2014-15 season ending either on Saturday night or Monday night during the Final Four in Indianapolis, the players were asked about what they'll remember the most about their days in UK's storied program in five or 10 years from now.
"I think what we're going to remember the most is just the way that we came together and how so many people doubted if we could play, if Coach could put all this talent together and play together, and we could all sacrifice, and that's what I'm going to remember the most," said Aaron Harrison, a 6-6 guard who is the team's leading scorer with an 11-point average.
Commented Towns, "Just going to remember most just being with everybody, just enjoying our time together, just cherish the moments we've had together both on and off the court and just being in each other's presence. It's going to be one of those things I'll take with me for the rest of my life."
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Gonzaga All-American Kyle Wiltjer, a member of UK's 2012 national championship team, saw his Bulldogs (35-3) complete their remarkable campaign this past weekend after losing to Duke 66-52 in Elite Eight.
The disappointing setback to the Blue Devils meant Wiltjer's "reunion" in the Final Four with some of his former Kentucky teammates wouldn't take place.
But Calipari had a lot to say about Wiltjer's accomplishments this season as the ex-Wildcat finished with an average of 16.8 points and 6.2 rebounds.
"I'm so proud of Kyle," said the UK boss. "My wife and I watch his games. I text him, we text back and forth. What he's done, I knew he could do.
"You know, when kids make decisions to stay or leave, I don't always agree. And I'm talking NBA or choose to go to another program, but at the end of the day, I am for Kyle Wiltjer. That's who I'm for. Unless we're playing him -- I hope he misses every shot. Other than that, I can't begin to tell you -- and Mark (Few of Gonzaga) is such a great coach, getting him to defend, elevating his game, not letting him settle for just being an offensive player, but being a guy that can score next to the basket, can pass, can shoot. Mark is making him a well-rounded player, something obviously I didn't do as good a job of. But I'm proud of him and really happy for him."
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UK has eight representatives who are members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. They are Adolph Rupp (inducted in 1969), Cliff Hagan (1978), Frank Ramsey (1982), Dan Issel (1993), C.M. Newton (2000), Pat Riley (2008), Adrian Smith (2010) and Rick Pitino (2013).
As you probably know, Calipari may the next one from UK to be elected to the Hall of Fame. The 56-year-old native of Moon Township, Pa. is one the 12 finalists for the Hall of Fame and the class of 2015 will be announced on Monday, April 6 at a news conference in Indianapolis before the national championship game.
Interestingly, among the other finalists for the HOF is Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, whose 35-3 team faces Calipari and UK Saturday night.
If Coach Cal gets the Hall of Fame honor, it would be like the icing on the cake especially if Kentucky captures the school's ninth NCAA championship in history. Calipari was asked about the Hall of Fame earlier this week during the Final Four conference call, but didn't want to talk about it. Instead, he heaped praise on the other Final Four coaches Ryan, Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Duke's Coach K.
"Yeah, when you talk about the coaches here, when you talk about Bo Ryan, you're talking about one of those guys that walked through the ranks and has done it anywhere he's been, was a great assistant before he was a great head coach. He's just a good guy," he said. "Tommy Izzo and I go so far back. We're in touch throughout this tournament. He knows what I feel about him. You talk about one of the top two or three coaches, he's it. He's done it every year with every kind of different team. He's done it when he's lost guys, when he's had great players, when he's had great teams.
"Then you talk about Mike Krzyzewski, c'mon. Wooden, Krzyzewski, and that's about it. My respect for Mike Krzyzewski goes beyond just watching him and what he's done in thousands of games, all that. My respect for him goes to this level. What he did for Anthony Davis, what he did for Derrick Rose, what he just did for DeMarcus Cousins in USA Basketball. All of them spent that time with him and their careers changed, the whole direction. My hope is that half the team becomes my guys because I see what he's done for my guys. If you know me well enough, you know that's moving me."
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The Kentucky-Tennessee basketball rivalry has been ho-hum in recent years. But that's going to change in the next few years after the surprising hiring of veteran coach Rick Barnes by UT.
In getting Barnes -- who was fired at Texas despite 16 NCAA tournament trips (one Final Four, two Elite Eight and two Sweet Sixteen appearances) during his 17 years as the Longhorn boss -- Vols, in baseball terms, have come up with a triple, if not a home run. The hiring has been highly praised in the Vol Nation.
A four-time Big 12 Coach of the Year, Barnes is "an elite basketball coach in every respect," said UT athletics director Dave Hart.
Before becoming the head coach at Texas, Barnes coached Providence to three NCAA tourney berths in six seasons. He then guided Clemson to the Big Dance three times in four years.
Barnes -- who grew up in Hickory, N.C., a three-hour drive from Knoxville -- is a great fit for Tennessee, giving the struggling Vols hoops program a big shot in the arm.
With new "major league" hires -- proven and established mentors like UT's Barnes and Mississippi State's Ben Howland (a three-time Final Four coach at UCLA) -- now in place, the SEC is off to a promising start in its hoops future.
And the league is not done yet. At this writing, Alabama reportedly was opening up its fat wallet to lure Gregg Marshall from Wichita State, but the Tide will have to settle for another coaching prospect like Minnesota's Richard Pitino.
Nevertheless, the winter time in the SEC is going to be a lot more exciting in the years to come. And, as a long-time SEC follower, I can hardly wait.
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A fearless Final Four forecast:
--Kentucky over Wisconsin by 7.
--Michigan State over Duke by 2.
--UK over MSU by 5.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle360.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle. He can be reached via e-mail at KySportsStyle360@gmail.com.