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.

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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.”

USC guard to leave school, turn pro

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It appears that De’Anthony Melton’s college career has come to an end.

The 6-foot-3 shooting guard for the USC Trojans announced on Wednesday that he will be leaving school. Melton, a sophomore, was caught up in the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball and has not played in a game this season.

“I have reached a crossroads wherein I have decided to focus on honing my strengths and improving upon my weakness for competition at the next level,” Melton said in a statement.

And athletic wing with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Melton averaged 8.3 points, 4.7 boards, 3.5 assists and 1.9 steals as a freshman. He is considered a potential first round pick.

CBT Podcast: Louisville’s NCAA ruling and what’s in store for the coaching carousel

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Old friend of the podcast Jeff Goodman joined Rob Dauster on Wednesday to walk through everything that is happening with the punishments received by Louisville as well as a breakdown of this year’s coaching carousel and the changes that could be coming down the pipeline this season. There’s a chance, with the FBI investigation looming, that this year could get crazy. They talk about just how likely that is and who could be the names that you see taking over on some of the hottest seats. The rundown:

OPEN: Louisville’s banner comes down and what they will do with their head coaching position

14:30: Arizona, Kansas and Michigan State all have smoke surrounding them. Will Bill Self, Sean Miller or Tom Izzo move? Will this year’s carousel be crazy?

19:45: Will UConn and Memphis find the money to buy out their coaches?

27:30: Search Firm! Who should ADs with coaches on the hot seat target, and who will they hire.

Iowa State’s Weiler-Babb, Young could miss rest of the season

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Iowa State could play the rest of this season without Nick Weiler-Babb and Solomon Young as the school announced Tuesday that both players are dealing with knee injuries.

Weiler-Babb has been battling tendinitis in his left knee during this season as he sat out four games during the year. Although Weiler-Babb returned to play in the last two games for the Cyclones, he got another medical opinion over the weekend.

Young had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on Tuesday as he’s expected to miss the next three-to-four weeks.

“It is unfortunate for Nick and Solomon because of the hard work they have put into our program,” Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm said in a statement. “We always want to do what is in the best interest of our players and their health is our top priority.”

Weiler-Babb, a 6-foot-5 junior guard, put up 11.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game for the Cyclones this week while Young, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, averaged 7.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per contest.

Since Iowa State is at .500 and likely won’t play in any significant postseason, these injuries will give them a chance to give some minutes to some younger and more inexperienced players. The Cyclones host TCU on Wednesday night as they still have four games left in the regular season before the Big 12 tournament begins.

Notre Dame remaining cautious as Bonzie Colson returns to practice

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Notre Dame senior forward Bonzie Colson is getting closer to returning after being out since early January.

The 6-foot-6 Colson has been out with a fracture in his left foot since Jan. 2 as the Irish have struggled to a below-.500 mark in the ACC. With the Irish likely out of the NCAA tournament picture at this point in the season, head coach Mike Brey told reporters, including Tim Prister of 247 Sports, that he would exercise caution with Colson returning to practice for Notre Dame this week. Colson is slightly ahead of the eight-week projection for his return so far, but he also has a pro future to account for after this season while the Irish don’t have a bright NCAA tournament future.

Colson was hoping to make his season debut on Saturday against Wake Forest but Brey isn’t optimistic about that debut.

“I won’t trust his judgment,” Brey said of Colson, “I’m not going to trust his judgment at all.

“He would have to really show something Thursday and Friday. I’ve got an open mind. Show me. I’ve got an open mind. But I just don’t know if that would be smart.”

Brey is hoping to gradually ease Colson back into the Notre Dame rotation so that he can earn some minutes to close out his senior season. Colson dressed for the Irish’s game against Miami on Monday night and he’s been working hard with Notre Dame’s strength and conditioning coaches.

“It would be energizing for us if Bonzie is back for at least half a practice Thursday,” Brey said. “That’s what we’re going to try. That would probably be energizing for everybody, especially for the seniors, to see him back in practice.

“But I don’t think he’s going to be ready to play (vs. Wake Forest) after two semi-days of practice. Pittsburgh’s realistic, depending upon how he reacts. That’s a positive. We need him back.”

It’s nice to see Brey exercise caution with this situation since Colson has the NBA Draft Combine to prepare for on May 16. Obviously, things haven’t gone as planned for the Irish this season, but they’ve battled a lot of injuries up and down the roster besides for Colson.

Colson does have some incentive to return as well as he’s looking to close out his college career in the best way possible while also showing pro teams that he’s healthy and active following the broken foot.

VIDEOS: Tom Izzo gets emotional on Michigan State Senior Night

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Michigan State has one of the best Senior Night traditions in college basketball as its departing players kiss the center floor logo before exiting the floor for the final time.

The Spartans had plenty of time to celebrate during a beatdown of Illinois in its home finale on Tuesday night as the program sent off some notable seniors like Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter and Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr.

Head coach Tom Izzo could barely keep his composure with Nairn coming off of of the floor.

Although Michigan State celebrated a big win over the Illini, there is plenty of work left to do. The Spartans are hoping to make its first Final Four run since 2015.

(H/t: ESPN and Michigan State on BTN)