It’s on to Texas for late-blooming Cats

Jamie H. Vaught

April 1, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS — Week 4 of the March Madness (and UK) tidbits….

— Very soon we should be searching for a catchy name for this unbelievable Kentucky team, which has gotten the Big Blue Nation in a frenzy with the Cats making their third trip to the Final Four in four years. UK’s last three thrilling victories have come against three 2013 Final Four clubs — Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan — as it continues its magical run to this weekend’s mega event in North Texas.

So how about calling them the “Late Bloomers?” The “Amazing Cats?” The “Super Kittens,” just like Joe B. Hall’s famous 1971-72 unbeaten freshman squad? Or perhaps the “Cardiac Cats” or even the “Comeback Cats II” (the 2014 version of Kentucky’s 1998 national championship team)?

Needless to say, UK sure has made a sensational comeback after struggling during its up-and-down regular season, discovering a new life in postseason action with a 6-1 mark during the SEC and NCAA tournaments.

“This team has fought the whole year,” said coach John Calipari, whose Cats have improved their overall mark to 28-10. “They’re maturing right before our eyes. They’re playing for each other.

“Every year it’s a process. Some guys get it quicker than others. It took these guys a little longer, and it took me a little longer to figure them out.”

— On a 1-10 scale, I’d rate Kentucky’s memorable campaign at 9, already. A national championship on Monday obviously would give the Cats a perfect 10 score.

— Several hours after NCAA President Dr. Mark Emmert appeared on CBS’ Face the Nation news program with host Bob Schieffer in Washington, D.C., he was spotted in last Sunday’s Kentucky-Michigan showdown.

Emmert said on the CBS program that unionizing student-athletes is not a good idea. National Labor Relations Board had ruled last week that Northwestern University football players are employees rather than student-athletes, and that they can establish a union.

— After Kentucky’s dramatic 75-72 victory over the 28-9 Wolverines, Julius Randle had a look of amazement and a big smile when teammate Aaron Harrison hit a game-winning, three-point downtown jumper.

“When he made that shot, it was just ridiculous,” said Randle. “In that stage, that atmosphere, to make that shot to send us to the Final Four, it was just amazing. And I was proud of him and it was shocking at the same time because it was such a tough shot.”

— UK’s 74-69 win over Louisville in last Friday night’s Sweet 16 showdown was something else, too. That’s after the Wildcats had rallied without injured Willie Cauley-Stein after trailing by 13 points in the first half as well as seven points with 4:33 remaining.

“We just never gave up,” said UK sophomore Alex Poythress, who had six points and four rebounds in 14 minutes against U of L. “That’s something about this team that we have learned lately. When it gets thick, we just don’t give up. We have a lot of fighters on this team. Everybody is a fighter. Everybody stepped up big when they needed to. They just didn’t give up and kept on playing.”

— Cauley-Stein, a 7-0 sophomore from Kansas, played only four minutes after injuring his ankle early in the first half.

“The doctor told me he was absolutely going bonkers in the locker room for the game, like for the team, cheering,” said Calipari late Friday night/early Saturday morning. “They had to hold him down, he was going crazy.”

— A very impressive (and probably overlooked) stat: Kentucky’s Harrison twins of Texas — Andrew and Aaron — only committed a total of three turnovers as they each played 38 minutes against U of L’s pressing defense.

— Louisville boss Rick Pitino on the setback: “We were up seven and we had some bad breaks down the stretch and gave up offensive rebounds. Pretty much statistically if you look at the game, we lost it at the foul line and we lost it on the backboard, every other area we played really well.

“But you’ve got to give them credit. They usually beat you on the backboard. That was catalyst at the end of the game.”

— A Harlan County native, Brandi Romines, surprised Calipari and the basketball office two years ago with a totally edible cake which was modeled after Kentucky’s 2012 NCAA championship trophy. And she last week once again sent another special creation to the UK basketball office — a bucket full of cake pops with the faces of players and coaches on them. A faithful Big Blue fan, Romines currently lives in Lexington and is the founder of Happy As A Lark Cake Creations.

— Randle agreed that Kentucky has rewritten its history of the 2013-14 campaign in recent weeks, especially after that Columbia disaster in South Carolina (an ugly five-point loss), the low point of Calipari’s tenure at UK.

“Yeah, in a way, I think we have,” said the 6-9, 250-pound beast from Dallas. “We just kind of had to put the past behind us and leave it where it was. It’s a new season, the post-season. That’s really all we can worry about, survive and advance, and we’ve got to take one game at a time. We carry momentum from the SEC tournament and brought it to the NCAA tournament.”

— In the wee hours after the Louisville game, as Calipari got up from the table at the conclusion of Kentucky’s news conference, NCAA moderator said, “Thank you, Rick. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

Calipari looked puzzled, “Did you say Rick?” And the moderator apologized.

The coach said okay and laughed. The moderator said, “I blame it on the hour.”

The poor guy was certainly thinking about Rick Pitino, who moments earlier had conducted a separate press conference in the same room.

— Randle was named the Midwest Regional’s Most Valuable Performer after turning in his nation-leading 24th double-double of the season after 15-point, 12-rebound and 16-point, 11-rebound performances against Louisville and Michigan, respectively.

— While at UK, Calipari’s NCAA tournament record is now 17-2, a winning percentage of nearly 90.

— Many Wildcat players look up to UK’s Jon Hood, a fifth-year senior who in 2009 was named Kentucky Mr. Basketball.

Randle said of Hood, “I guess he is like a coach. He’s kind of the old man on the team. But he’s definitely somebody we can look to for advice.

“So whenever we have a question about anything or struggling with anything about basketball and school, he’s definitely somebody we can go to for advice and appreciate it.”

Added Aaron Harrison, “Hood really is kind of a coach. He doesn’t like it when we call him that. But he really helps all of us out and he’s seen a lot. And he knows every position, every play, where everybody’s supposed to be.

“He’s really intense at practice and stuff because he wants to win just like the rest of us.”

Hood has played with 17 NBA players during his time at UK. “They tried to kill him (in practices),” Calipari quipped.

— The red-hot 36-2 Gators lost to Wisconsin (59-53) and UConn (65-64) during the November/December nonconference action and both of those teams are also playing in the Final Four. In addition, Florida doesn’t want to face the Wildcats again after beating them three times this winter, including a one-point victory in the SEC tourney finals.

— My fearless Final Four forecast:

Florida over UConn by 5.

Kentucky over Wisconsin by 3.

Kentucky over Florida by 2 in the national title game.