Kentucky v Michigan

Kentucky feels good making the Final Four, but the Wildcats aren’t done yet

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INDIANAPOLIS — As Kentucky knocked off three consecutive opponents from last year’s Final Four en route to the 16th Final Four in program history, the young Wildcats went through different stages of emotions after holding on for three close victories.

After Wichita State, it was relief.

Kentucky might have been the preseason No. 1 team in the country — with aspirations of a 40-0 season — but after beating a team that was still legitimately going for that undefeated mark in the 35-0 Shockers, the Wildcats felt like they finally began to live up to the enormous hype placed on them.

“It feels like five million pounds off your shoulders when the buzzer went off,” sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein said after the Round of 32 win in St. Louis. “It was just a good feeling. Everyone was yelling and super hype and it was just a good win.”

After Louisville, it was exhaustion.

MOREKevin Ollie’s revival of UConn | Michigan State’s trying season ends | Aaron Harrison tho

The Sweet 16 game at Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday night was an emotional roller coaster for both rivals from the Bluegrass State. 35,000-plus screaming blue-and-red fans that ultimately helped the Wildcats knock off the defending national champions with a 74-69 victory.

Kentucky only led for 68 seconds of that win over Louisville and it felt like an old-school 15-round heavyweight fight.

“(Andrew Harrison) told us we were going to fight and win, that’s his two biggest words that I kept remembering coming out of his mouth,” freshman guard Dominique Hawkins said on Friday. “In the huddles and on the court. We were going to fight and win and find a way to win.”

After Michigan, it was excitement.

John Calipari’s team had run the gauntlet that was the Midwest Regional and made it out alive, cutting the nets down after Aaron Harrison’s game-winning three-pointer with 2.3 seconds remaining. The shot vaulted the Wildcats into a place nobody thought possible after a bad road loss to South Carolina: Arlington, Texas for the Final Four.

But for all of the excitement over this insanely talented group of players finally coming together, for Aaron Harrison’s clutch shooting in Indianapolis and for Marcus Lee’s surprise performance, Kentucky still has business they want to finish off heading into next weekend in North Texas.

Teams with talk of a 40-0 season don’t play for Final Fours, they play for national championships.

“Every team takes tough losses. Everybody (on our team) believes that we’re going to win. We’re in a war, still, so we have to keep on battling,” sophomore forward Alex Poythress said. “We never doubted ourselves.”

Others certainly had their doubts. As Kentucky struggled at times to mesh and play cohesively during the regular season many became vocal critics of a team filled with “one-and-done” players and McDonald’s All-Americans. But during this four-game run to the Final Four, different players have taken turns stepping up and making plays.

Kentucky has a toughness and cohesiveness about them we haven’t seen all season.

​”I started reading what everybody was writing. I’m thinking, ‘this is going to be easy,'” Calipari said. “​This was very difficult for all of us. It was difficult because my choice coaching them was to allow them the body language, the effort less than it needed to be, the focus less than it needed to be, at times selfishness. And now I became a little mean because we had to get it changed.”

Aaron Harrison might be most remembered for his cold-blooded shooting — “Stone-cold killer right there,” Poythress said. — as he knocked in go-ahead three-pointers against both Louisville and Michigan in the final minute of play to help give Kentucky victories.

“I knew he was clutch, I didn’t know he was that clutch,” freshman center Dakari Johnson said.

Aaron’s twin brother Andrew has also stepped up his play throughout the tournament, playing through an injury that nearly kept him out of the Wichita State game and playing solid overall floor games on both ends of the floor throughout the tournament.

Julius Randle has four consecutive double-doubles to open the 2014 NCAA Tournament. His 24 double-doubles on the season make him second all-time in NCAA history for a freshman season behind only Michael Beasley’s 28.

James Young has been up-and-down at times, but his big shots down-the-stretch helped carry the Wildcats past Wichita State and he also had some momentum-killing three-pointers against Michigan.

And the “other” McDonald’s All-Americans — Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee — stepped up at various times throughout the tournament as well.

Even without Willie Cauley-Stein, who many view as a first-round pick, Kentucky was able to throw talented players on the floor to top Louisville and Michigan.

“It just shows how talented we are. We go eight (or) nine deep if we really need to. With having such great players it’s hard to play eight or nine people a game so sometimes Coach has to shorten his rotation,” Poythress said. “There were probably two or three people that could have stepped in this game that didn’t play (and made a difference). It just shows how talented we are and how we have great players here.”

But the focus continues to be on a title for the Wildcats. Although Kentucky can rest a bit easier knowing their Final Four destiny is fulfilled, they still have their eyes on the ultimate prize.

“I think this might be the sweetest [Final Four] of them all just because everyone was doubting us all year,” senior guard Jarrod Polson said. “We had a lot of low points to the season and no one really gave us a shot to be here. This honestly might be the sweetest one.”

Kentucky might not love playing with each other or ever really get a chance to be as great as they possibly could be, but in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats are talented enough to win the whole thing. And for the first time all season, they’ve come together. And at just the right time.

“This team came together so great, so fast,” Poythress said. “We’re all hanging out with each other and it’s just a family now. But we’re not done yet.”

Wisconsin ends No. 2 Maryland’s 27-game home win streak

Wisconsin forward Vitto Brown (30) shoots during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Maryland, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
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Just over a month ago Wisconsin lost at Northwestern, dropping to 9-9 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten and had the look of a team that would have to fight simply to get into the NIT. Since then, Greg Gard’s Badgers have won seven straight games with the most recent triumph being a 70-57 victory at No. 2 Maryland. Not only did Wisconsin become the first Big Ten team to beat the Terrapins at the Xfinity Center since Maryland joined the Big Ten, but they also ended Maryland’s 27-game home win streak.

And it was Wisconsin’s offensive balance that stood out, as four starters scored in double figures led by forward Vitto Brown.

Brown, who accounted for 18 points and five rebounds in Wisconsin’s win over Nebraska Wednesday night, was even better against Maryland as he scored a career-high 21 points on 8-for-14 shooting from the field and grabbed seven rebounds. While Bronson Koenig (16 points, six rebounds, five assists) and Nigel Hayes (14 and six rebounds) are the ones expected to shoulder much of the load, players such as Brown, Ethan Happ and Zak Showalter (11 points) will also be key as Wisconsin makes its push for an NCAA tournament bid.

In Wisconsin’s first five conference games Brown averaged 4.4 points and 1.8 rebounds per contest. Since then he’s averaging 11.4 points and 3.9 rebounds per game, scoring in double figures in each of Wisconsin’s last three games.

Overall Wisconsin’s looked far more fluid offensively during this win streak, and over the last three games the Badgers have shot very well from the perimeter as they made nearly 51 percent of their attempts (12-for-26 against Maryland). Add in Wisconsin’s ability to take advantage of Maryland’s defensive rebounding issues, converting 13 offensive boards into 20 second-chance points, and it was easy to see why Wisconsin was able to grab control of the game in the first half during a 20-0 run that gave them the separation they needed.

Maryland’s issues throughout conference play remain the same, as they struggled to end defensive possessions while also turning the ball over far too often (seven times) during the aforementioned Wisconsin run. With Melo Trimble not playing at the level he’s capable of reaching (he may not be completely healthy), Maryland has some things to address during this stretch run.

But more than anything, Saturday was the product of a Wisconsin team that’s starting to click at the right time. And as crazy as it may seem, given how Wisconsin began Big Ten play, the Badgers only two games out of first place.

No. 5 Xavier finds shooting touch in 74-57 blowout at Butler

Xavier head coach Chris Mack talks with James Farr (2) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Butler, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Indianapolis. Xavier won 74-57. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
AP Photo/Darron Cummings
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) No. 5 Xavier learned its lesson.

To keep winning, it must continue do the dirty work.

Four days after stumbling at Creighton, the Musketeers got back to basics and used a balanced offense and a smothering defense to run away from Butler 74-57 on Saturday.

“We played much better today and after about the first four or five minutes, we defended,” coach Chris Mack said. “Our shots were, in my opinion, really good ones because we got in the lane, we made the extra pass and I thought that was the difference.”

Whatever the explanation, the Musketeers (22-3, 10-3 Big East) certainly looked worthy of the highest ranking in school history.

After making a season-low 30 percent from the field and just 1 of 21 3-point attempts in Tuesday’s loss, Xavier rebounded by shooting 56.9 percent and going 9 of 18 beyond the arc. J.P. Macura led the way with 13 points while Edmond Sumner and Remy Abell each had 12.

But the biggest improvements showed up in other areas – defense, rebounding and effort. They allowed 36 points over the final 31 1/2 minutes.

“Everybody was boxing out and rebounding, and on the offensive end we have so much talent we could get whatever we wanted,” said Abell, who started his college career playing for the Indiana Hoosiers.

The difference was obvious.

Butler (17-8, 6-7) was held almost 25 points below its season average.

Kelan Martin, with 15 points, and Andrew Chrabascz, with 12, were the only players to score more than 10. And the top three scorers – Martin, Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones – were a combined 11 of 39 from the field as the Bulldogs’ three-game winning streak came to an end.

Xavier crushed the Bulldogs so thoroughly that chants of “Let’s Go X” resounded throughout sold out Hinkle Fieldhouse over the final minutes.

“We didn’t have near the effort, the juice, the purpose defensively and we didn’t move the ball offensively and that was actually the case from the opening minute,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said. “We mentioned that in the four-minute media and said that had to improve and when it doesn’t these things happen.”

Butler used a 9-0 first-half run to take a 21-13 lead midway through the first half.

Xavier answered with a 27-6 run that included four 3s and a three-point play in a 27-6 run to make it 40-27. The Bulldogs got as close as 47-39 early in the second half, which later became a seven-point deficit after a replay review gave Dunham a 3.

But the Bulldogs couldn’t get closer.

“You can go 1 for 21 one game, and then the next game it’s – I’m sure it was better,” Macura said. “That’s basketball.”

POINTERS

Xavier’s dominance showed up in two key stats on the box score. The Musketeers outscored Butler 36-14 in points off the bench and 36-18 in the paint despite having only two offensive rebounds. Xavier has won six of its last seven.

ON THE ROAD

Even the road has been kind to the Musketeers this season. They have won seven times in true road games, their highest season total since 2010-11. They have also won five Big East games on the road – more than they won in either of their first two seasons in the league and they have won 10 of the last 13 at Hinkle.

MOVING UP

Dunham continues his ascent on the Bulldogs’ career scoring list. After moving from 14th to sixth on the list in the first 23 games this season, Dunham moved passed Lynn Mitchem (1,798) for fifth and within one point of A.J. Graves (1,807) for fourth. Matt Howard is third (1,939) and the only 2,000-point scorers in school history are Chad Tucker (2,321) and Darrin Fitzgerald (2,019).

TIP-INS

Xavier: Former Indiana prep star Trevon Bluiett had 11 points and four rebounds and James Farr had 12 rebounds. … Each of Xavier’s 22 wins has come by at least seven points. … The Musketeers were the highest-ranked team to play at Hinkle Fieldhouse since No. 3 DePaul visited Feb. 23, 1981.

Butler: Shot 33.3 percent overall and was 8 of 22 on 3s. …. The Bulldogs only have three wins at home against Top 10 teams – No. 8 Gonzaga in January 2013, No. 3 Michigan in 1965-66 and No. 5 Tennessee in 1958-59. … Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence attended the game.

UP NEXT

Xavier hosts No. 20 Providence on Wednesday.

Butler hosts Creighton on Tuesday.