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.”

John Calipari lobbies for change in one-and-done rule to help athletes

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Kentucky head coach John Calipari is hoping the one-and-done rule changes so that athletes have more rights.

In a revealing interview with Mac Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Calipari went into great detail about his thoughts behind a rule that many believe he has exploited greatly to his benefit over the last 10 years. Even though the Wildcats and Calipari have figured out the one-and-done rule to their advantage, the Hall of Fame coach still wants the rule to be abolished.

“Kids should be able to go (to the NBA) out of high school. That’s not our deal. That’s between the NBA and the Players Association,” Calipari said Friday. “Don’t put restrictions on kids.”

Calipari told Engel that he met with the NBPA last week in the hopes of the organization creating a combine for worthy high school juniors with pro potential. Calipari also wants agents more involved with high school kids.

“The players and the families need to know – here are the ones who should be thinking about the NBA, and here are the ones who should not,” Calipari said. “That’s why you need a combine.”

“If they want to go out of high school, go. If they want to go to college and then leave, let them leave when they want to leave. Why would we force a kid to stay? ‘Well – it’s good for the game?’ It’s about these kids and their families. Because let me tell you, if we (abolish one-and-done), the kids that do come to college will stay for two to three years.”

Calipari also has plenty of thoughts on the NBA G-League and how the league could potentially help young athletes with an education fund if they choose to turn pro directly out of high school. Regardless of what happens with the NBPA and the one-and-done rule, Calipari also said that his program would be fine — regardless of the rules.

Given that Calipari has operated on a different recruiting plane than everyone else in college basketball (with the exception of a few other bluebloods like Duke and Kansas) the last several years, it’s always notable when he gives his thoughts on the overall landscape of basketball.

But is Calipari actually lobbying for this? Or is this yet another way for Calipari to mold quotes into a recruiting pitch for elite players? Ultimately, it’s up to the NBPA to decide how the rules will be for future pros.

Report: NCAA allows Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale to compete on Dancing with the Stars

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After a memorable March Madness run that included two game-winning jumpers in the Final Four and an eventual national title, Notre Dame junior guard Arike Ogunbowale became a breakout national star.

Ogunbowale already appeared on Ellen while meeting her basketball idol, Kobe Bryant. Now, Ogunbowale will get the rare opportunity to appear on Dancing with the Stars — which the NCAA will allow even though Ogunbowale is still a rising senior who is scheduled to return to school next season.

Dancing with the Stars compensates its contestants and also has a prize for the winner. Under NCAA Bylaw 12.4.1, college athletes cannot be compensated based on their athletic abilities.

But the NCAA is arguing that Ogunbowale’s appearance on the show is “unrelated to her basketball abilities,” according to a statement they released regarding the decision. According to a report from Jacob Bogage of the Washington Post, the NCAA is also limiting Ogunbowale’s visibility for the show’s promotional tools.

From the Washington Post report:

The NCAA has placed restrictions on Ogunbowale that limit her involvement with the show and her potential to build her brand. She is not allowed to appear in promotional materials for the show, including commercials, according to the NCAA’s statement. She didn’t join other contestants during a group appearance on “Good Morning America” last week. Show handicappers have already wondered whether the NCAA’s limits will hurt her chances.

And the NCAA could turn down future requests by arguing that Ogunbowale is not endorsing “Dancing with the Stars” by appearing on the program, but instead is participating in a “personal growth experience” by learning how to ballroom dance, said Barbara Osborne, a professor of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina.

This is a slippery slope for the NCAA to take with this. Ogunbowale is, quite clearly, a famous basketball player. She’s on Dancing with the Stars because of her basketball abilities. The NCAA arguing anything else is just silly and embarrassing. The NCAA is also trying its best to uphold its argument about amateurism in the only way they know how.

But could this also could be a sign that the NCAA is perhaps open to the potential of allowing athletes to profit off of themselves in the future? The NCAA is currently handling a number of different court cases regarding amateurism, so it’s hard to say where all of this might go until the legal process starts to clear up.

Either way, this should be a fun experience for Ogunbowale while providing great national exposure for herself and women’s basketball. Ogunbowale might not be technically allowed to build her own brand during the show, but she’ll be gaining tons of new exposure for her basketball future — regardless of what the NCAA says in a statement.

Memphis center Karim Sameh Azab diagnosed with leukemia

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Memphis center Karim Sameh Azab announced on Saturday that he’s been battling leukemia lymphoma.

The 6-foot-11 big man from Egypt has been receiving medical treatment since the beginning of April as he took to Twitter to announce his current status.

Sameh Azab played in 15 games this season for the Tigers as he saw action for 84 total minutes. The reserve big man was a late addition in former head coach Tubby Smith’s first recruiting class at Memphis as he didn’t quality to play during his first season.

“Karim has my full support and the support of our whole team,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said in a statement earlier this month. “While we appreciate the support of the Tiger family in this matter, we would also like to protect the privacy of Karim and his family.”

South Dakota State’s Mike Daum declares for 2018 NBA Draft without an agent

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South Dakota State big man Mike Daum will enter the 2018 NBA Draft without an agent, he announced on Friday.

The 6-foot-9 redshirt junior has been a mid-major draft darling the past few seasons as Daum was one of the most productive players in the country last season. Putting up 23.9 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, Daum shot 46 percent from the field and 42 percent from three-point range during the season.

With his size and unique floor-spacing ability, Daum is going to be an interesting player to track during the NBA draft process. Teams are always looking for big men who can space the floor, and if Daum shoots well in workouts, he could wind up staying in the draft.

If Daum returns to South Dakota State, then he once again makes them a major NCAA tournament contender after the Jackrabbits won the Summit League last season.

Marquette lands Fordham grad transfer Joseph Chartouny

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Marquette pulled in a quality graduate transfer commitment on Friday as Fordham guard Joseph Chartouny pledged to the Golden Eagles.

The 6-foot-3 Chartouny was a three-year starter for the Rams as he should help offset the loss of guard Andrew Rowsey to graduation. While Chartouny isn’t nearly the perimeter threat that Rowsey was, he should be able to help significantly on the defensive end for Marquette. Chartouny put up 12.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 3.3 steals per game last season as he was one of the more productive all-around players in the Atlantic 10.

One of the nation’s leaders in steals the past three seasons, Chartouny has much better size to play alongside Markus Howard in the Marquette backcourt than Rowsey (5-foot-11) had. Since Howard is also 5-foot-11, Chartouny can now guard the bigger and more athletic perimeter matchup as Marquette tries to improve its porous defense from last season.

Marquette still has an open scholarship for next season as they’ve been investigating other transfer options to bolster the roster. Returning most of last season’s roster, the expectation will be for the Golden Eagles to make it back to the NCAA tournament next season.