Kentucky 'in a great frame of mind' for Final Four

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 31, 2014 

Barring a surprise, Kentucky will play in the Final Four without rim protector Willie Cauley-Stein.

"I doubt he plays," UK Coach John Calipari said on a teleconference Monday. "He'll be on our bench cheering like crazy."

Cauley-Stein injured his left ankle in the first half against Louisville in the Midwest Region semifinals Friday. UK did not elaborate on the nature of the injury beyond Calipari denying it involved the Achilles' tendon.

Cauley-Stein watched from the bench as Kentucky beat Michigan in the region finals Sunday. He used crutches when moving between the locker room and team bench.

"They're in a great frame of mind," Calipari said of the Cats. "But we lost Willie. You understand that Willie changed most games for us."

Cauley-Stein led Kentucky with 106 blocks, which ranks No. 22 in the nation. The next five prolific shot-blockers for UK have rejected a combined 104.

Calipari likened the sidelining of Cauley-Stein to Nerlens Noel tearing an anterior cruciate ligament last season. It radically altered UK's post-season hopes and cast a pall over Noel's basketball future.

"They see their life flash before them, their careers," Calipari said of the reaction to serious injury. "I said to Nerlens, 'You are fine. Now, our team is not. But you are fine.'

"I said to Willie, 'We're going to try to cover for you. It's going to be really hard. But you've proven yourself. They (NBA personnel) know who you are. They know the impact you have on games. ... This is hurting our team, yes. But we're going to try to cover. You are fine.'"

Safe landing

Although there has been much talk about naysayers during the regular season's challenges, Calipari denied that the questions raised served any useful motivational purpose.

"It played no part," he said. "It's a process. You can't skip steps. Part of that process is failing fast. Sometimes failing often. The final step to all this is you surrender to each other. You lose yourself in the team, and you understand that less is more.

"But that really takes time when you're playing seven freshmen in your top eight."

Actually, in terms of minutes played, UK had a senior (Jarrod Polson) and two sophomores (Alex Poythress and Cauley-Stein) in its top eight.

"Each of them scored 25 points a game in high school," Calipari said of the adjustment to the team concept in college. "... It's a process. What anybody said or wrote had no bearing on us."

Calipari likened the process of meshing mostly freshmen to a pilot bringing in a plane. "We finally got the plane down," he said. "We almost ran out of runway."

Gantlet

After the victory over Michigan, several UK players acknowledged the emotional and physical toll of recent games. Kentucky's last five games were against No. 1 Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament finals, a physical Kansas State, No. 1 seed (and unbeaten) Wichita State, arch-rival Louisville and finally Michigan.

"It's a grind," Julius Randle said, "but at the same time, I'm extremely rejuvenated."

Calipari dismissed the notion that UK needed a pause to refresh.

"We're just marching how we've been marching," he said, "and nothing changes. You're not going to get away from any of that stuff."

Clash of styles?

Florida played Kentucky and Wisconsin this season. Billy Donovan saw "contrasting styles" as a fitting label for the UK-Wisconsin game.

Kentucky is "unbelievably talented," the Florida coach said. "Great rebounding and size. Whereas Wisconsin is going to give you a lot of that flex motion where the floor is going to be spaced. Outstanding three-point shooting team."

Donovan cited rebounding and three-point shooting as "big, big" factors in the game.

Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan downplayed any contrast in styles.

"I don't see it totally as that," he said. "If other people do, they could explain to you why.

"But we are who we are right now. We're not changing. They're who they are right now. Whatever people want to say about styles and all that, I leave that up to them."

Hail, Kentucky

Ryan on UK: "For me to say Kentucky is good, I'd be slighting them. They are very good. They're playing in the semifinals for a reason."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Email: jtipton@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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