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.”

Kentucky fans flood Facebook page of official John Higgins’ company with negative reviews

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Unhappy with how John Higgins performed at his part-time job, Kentucky fans did their best trash him at his full-time gig.

The Facebook page of the referee’s Omaha-based roofing company was flooded by Big Blue Nation with negative comments and reviews after they were displeased with the official’s work in the Wildcats’ Elite Eight loss to North Carolina.

Not only did fans leave obviously fake and vulgar comments on the page, they also deluged it with one-star reviews to drive down its average significantly.

Once again, the Internet is struck by its proportionality problem. What could be considered a silly bit of online pranking by a small minority suddenly turns into an avalanche of nastiness that could do real damage to someone’s life, business and family, given the importance of social media for companies in 2017. It becomes cruel when it reaches a level like this.

When there’s so many general complaints about the state of officiating in college basketball, it’s also not helpful to do something like this to one of the referees generally considered to be one of the country’s best. It’s not exactly a glowing endorsement for prospective future officials to follow the career path if it brings this level of negative attention to you off the court.

Report: North Carolina to miss out on NCAA events through 2022 if HB2 not addressed by Thursday

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North Carolina is in danger of losing out on hosting NCAA events through 2022 if the state does not make changes to HB2, the controversial so-called “bathroom bill” by Thursday afternoon, according to the leader of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance.

“I have confirmed with a contact very close to the NCAA that its deadline for HB2 is 48 hours from now,” Scott Dupree, the head of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance, said, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. “If HB2 has not been resolved by that time, the NCAA will have no choice but to move forward without the North Carolina bids.”

“The NCAA has already delayed the bid review process once and has waited as long as it possibly can, and now it must finalize all championship site selections through spring of 2022.”

The NCAA, as it reminded North Carolina last week, is making its determinations on hosts for events from 2018-2022 this week. There was movement last week at the North Carolina statehouse for a compromise on the bill, but that apparently stalled out, the News & Observer reported, though there remain efforts to make progress on a pact.

Should lawmakers not reach an agreement in time, the state’s flagship basketball programs will be without an NCAA tournament home-court advantage that they have often enjoyed. HB2 just this past year moved the first and second rounds out of the state and to South Carolina, where No. 2 seed Duke lost to the seventh-seeded Gamecocks in their home state.

Clearly, there’s much more to consider here than NCAA tournament implications, but it’s another reminder of the economic impact the bill has made in North Carolina. This week, The Associated Press estimated it will cost the state $3.76 billion over a 12-year period.

Baylor’s Freeman to graduate and transfer

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Baylor is losing one of its contributors over the past three seasons.

Al Freeman, a 6-foot-3 guard, will graduate and transfer to another school, the Bears announced Tuesday.

“Al has been a tremendous student-athlete and made great contributions to our program over the last four years, and we’re thrilled that he’s going to complete his degree at Baylor,” Bears coach Scott Drew said in a statement. “He’ll always be part of the Baylor family, and we’ll be rooting for him as he continues his career.”

Freeman, who redshirted his freshman year due to a broken wrist, started 57 games during his career in Waco and averaged 8.6 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. He was a full-time starter as a sophomore, but made just 22 this past season and saw his minutes slashed.

As a graduate transfer, the Charlotte native will be immediately eligible at his next program for his final collegiate season.

Xavier sophomore Edmond Sumner declares for NBA Draft

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Xavier sophomore Edmond Sumner has declared for the NBA Draft and is expected to sign with an agent.

“First let me start by saying these three years at Xavier have been the best of my life,” Sumner said in a statement. “I have certainly been presented with some ups and downs but they have only served to make me a stronger person. This decision was very hard for me because of the love I have for X. After weighing my options with my family, I have decided to enter the 2017 NBA Draft, fulfilling a lifelong dream. I want to thank Coach Mack and the rest of the staff for believing in me and giving me a chance when no one did! I’ll always be grateful for that. Xavier Nation I will always love you!”

Sumner, a 6-foot-6 point guard with dynamic athleticism and first round potential that averaged 15.0 points, but he is coming off of a torn ACL that he suffered in January. He’s likely to be a second round pick in this year’s NBA Draft.

This is a big loss for the Musketeers, but it’s one that they planned for. After his eruption last season, most expected him to put his name in the draft this season.

Duke freshman Harry Giles III declares for NBA Draft

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Harry Giles III has declared for the NBA Draft after playing just one season at Duke.

“Playing in the NBA has been my goal for as long as I can remember, and I’m so excited to take the next step in that journey,” Giles said. “My time at Duke has been a dream come true. I’ve built so many strong relationships here and I have so many people to thank, from my teammates and coaches to our medical staff and strength coach. I can’t understate how proud I am to be part of the Duke Basketball program forever.”

Giles played in 26 games for the Blue Devils. He started six games and averaged 3.9 points and 3.8 rebounds, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story with Giles. At one point considered to be the best player in the loaded Class of 2016, Giles has dealt with a pair of devastating knee injuries already. He underwent a third surgery right before the start of the season and never seemed like he was fully able to get back to being the player he was when he was in high school.

This is the right decision for Giles to make, as there is still some uncertainty regarding the health of his knees. Were his struggles due to the fact that he was tossed right into the middle of a college basketball season after having sat out for 14 straight months, or was this simply a result of knees that no longer allow him to be the player that he used to be?

He might still end up being a first round pick this year. At the very least, he’s make some guaranteed money if he can get into a camp. Maybe returning to school could have helped vault him into the lottery in 2018, but another year like this year would’ve firebombed his draft stock.

“With his uplifting personality and love for the game, Harry Giles has been a joy to coach,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He is only beginning to scratch the surface of how good he can be on the basketball court. Harry has an exciting NBA future ahead of him and we are here to fully support him as a member of our brotherhood.”

I know I’m not alone when I say I hope that Giles gets healthy and succeeds in the NBA.