ST. LOUIS — Only three weekends earlier, Kentucky lost at lowly South Carolina. Yet Willie Cauley-Stein still believed something like Sunday was possible.
"I wasn't worried about anything," he said after UK beat top-seeded Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament. "We still had time to fix the stuff we needed to fix."
A convincing victory over LSU in Kentucky's first game in the Southeastern Conference Tournament strengthened Cauley-Stein's faith.
"I thought this is it," he said. "We're coming together as a team and guys are figuring out how to play in a college game, and it's showing."
UK players downplayed the redemption angle, but Alex Poythress did say the victory over Wichita State helped make a point.
"We were just trying to prove we still are a team," he said. "We can play with anyone."
Meanwhile, Wichita State, which oddly enough felt the need to prove its worth despite an undefeated record, saw its season end.
"All year, we tried to turn non-believers into believers," guard Ron Baker said. "It's kind of sad not to move on in this tournament. But I think this game showed we were just one play short."
Never an underdog
Cauley-Stein dismissed the notion of Kentucky pulling an upset. As UK fans do not storm the court, so UK does not fit the role of underdog.
"We're never that underdog," Cauley-Stein said. "That name on your jersey says a lot ...
"We could have been the 16-seed playing the one-seed, and I don't feel like we're an underdog. The name just carries so much, you know, respect. We're respected around the country for our program. Not even the players in it. Just the program."
Wichita State star Cleanthony Early made a believer out of the Cats by scoring 31 points.
"We were saying he was Carmelo," said Jarrod Polson in reference to New York Knicks gunner Carmelo Anthony. " ... Huge game. Huge game. We had no answer for him."
Early, a 6-foot-8 forward, hit driving shots and jumpers over Julius Randle and James Young and anyone else UK assigned as a defender.
"It didn't matter who was guarding him," UK Coach John Calipari said.
Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall noted how he had to keep Early in the game. Early played 39 minutes.
"He was in such a groove," Marshall said.
One question loomed; Why didn't Wichita State go to Early to try to tie the score or win with the final shot?
UK did not strategize to specifically deny Early the ball, Polson said.
Early, who had an odd smile on his face after the game, deflected questions about why he did not get the ball.
"I'm not one of those guys to sit back and think what-if," he said. "Because it didn't happen. ... It is what it is. Move on. Get better."
Alex Poythress said Early was better than he expected.
"He can shoot better than I thought he could," Poythress said.
Early, Wichita State's leading scorer (16.0 ppg), said he's surprised many people during his career at the school.
In describing the hotly contested competition, Calipari called it an "elite eight game."
Cauley-Stein echoed the sentiment in a colorful way.
"It felt like there was 15 minutes left and it felt like 30 seconds," he said. "And you're up by one or it's tied. That's how hard everybody was playing.
"That's what it's all about. That's why we play the game."
Cauley-Stein said he turned to Poythress near game's end to comment on the tense atmosphere.
"'Bro, I don't like this,'" he said. "'It's too hairy, right now.'
"Especially when it's the last shot and your season's on the line. You've just got to throw it up, and you don't worry if you make it or miss it. That's the hardest thing to guard because you can literally throw up anything."
Cauley-Stein offered a clarification on his shock-the-world declaration on Thursday. He did not mean it as a slight toward Wichita State or any other team, he said.
"People took it way out of context," he said.
UK-U of L
Besides being the soul of wit, brevity can also be an effective method of communication.
Polson, who grew up in Jessamine County, on Kentucky playing Louisville in the Sweet 16: "You know I'm excited. That's all I got."
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.