Remaining mentally prepared tough but necessary task for Kentucky’s seldom-used freshmen

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Coaches say it all the time: remain prepared because you never know when your opportunity will come. While that’s an easy thing to say and an easy concept to agree to fully buying in is another matter, especially when the player in question arrives on campus at a McDonald’s All-American.

That’s the position Kentucky freshman center Marcus Lee has found himself in for much of this season, with the newcomer playing an average of just over six minutes per game. In SEC play the Californian didn’t see action in nine of the Wildcats’ 18 regular season games, and he played a total of one minute in Kentucky’s first three NCAA tournament games. So when Willie Cauley-Stein went down with an ankle injury early in their Sweet 16 win over No. 4 Louisville, more than a few people saw that as a hit the Wildcats would be unable to shake off.

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Enter Lee, who gave Kentucky 15 quality minutes in their Elite Eight win over Michigan, scoring ten points, grabbing eight rebounds (seven offensive) and blocking two shots. Opportunity knocked, and Lee was both ready and able to take advantage of the situation. And that preparedness reveals a level of maturity that some freshmen would lack when having to deal with the idea of not seeing much playing time after entering college as one of the pieces of a prized recruiting class.

“We coach every player like they’re a starter,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said earlier this week. “There’s no one coached different. You’re held accountable just like a starter. You’re pushed and challenged and coached just like a starter would be.

“We try throughout the season to make sure we’re getting those kids minutes so by the end of the year if something happens, they’re ready to go. So I’m not surprised.”

Lee was one of two freshmen who stepped forward in that victory after seeing little playing time throughout the course of the season. Dominique Hawkins didn’t score a point in his 11 second-half minutes, but his defending of Nik Stauskas was a critical factor for the Wildcats. After scoring 18 points on 5-for-7 shooting from the field in the first half Stauskas scored just six in the second, shooting 1-for-7 from the field.

“I just keep myself prepared because I know someone can get in foul trouble or injured, and the assistant coaches always tell me to be ready for my chance,” Hawkins told NBC Sports. “During the Michigan game I made the most of my chance. Coach Cal wanted me to play good defense on Stauskas, and I feel like I did the majority of the [second half].”

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How much of a role Hawkins plays in Saturday’s game against No. 2 Wisconsin remains to be seen, but in the case of Lee he’ll be asked to contribute against a Wisconsin front court anchored by Frank Kaminsky. Cauley-Stein is holding out hope that he’ll be able to play, but he has still yet to go full speed in practice. With that being the case, Lee may once again find himself in the spotlight. And remaining positive despite receiving limited playing time is a trait that can serve a player such as Lee well in such moments.

“No not at all, because we were winning,” Lee said when asked if he was frustrated by the decrease in playing time. “You can’t be mad about winning. Just being with my team and working hard each day, you really don’t have time to be mad about everything.

“I’ve gone through games and practices the same way I always have,” added Lee. “My mentality is always to stay ready and do whatever needs to be done for my team.”

A difficult mentality for some highly regarded prospects to maintain in the face of adversity, that mindset is one reason why Kentucky was able to do enough to beat Michigan and reach the Final Four. And both Lee and Hawkins will need to remain mentally prepared, should their names be called Saturday night.

Kennesaw State blows eight-point lead in 16 seconds, loses to Elon

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Kennesaw State entered Monday night at 1-6 on the season, but with 19 seconds left, it looked like the Owls have their second of the season locked up. Kendrick Ray made a pair of free throws with 19 seconds left to put KSU up 89-81, and all they had to do was avoid a complete meltdown to get out with a win.

They couldn’t.

A Luke Eddy layup with 16 seconds left cut the lead to six, and after KSU’s Nigel Pruitt missed two free throws, Dainan Swoope his a three with seven seconds left to make the score 89-86.

On the ensuing inbounds, Kennesaw State threw the ball away … and then proceeded to foul Eddy when he was shooting a three. This is what that disaster looked like:

Eddy would hit all three threes before, shockingly, KSU turned the ball over again. Elon could not capitalize this time, sending the game to overtime, where the Phoenix outscored the Owls 14-4.

Elon won 104-94.

Here’s what the comeback looked like on the play-by-play:

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Rick Pitino: Louisville ‘just ignored’ in top 25 due of scandal

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Louisville beatdown Saint Louis at the Barclays Center on Sunday night, a 77-57 win that was much closer at halftime than the final score might indicate.

The win moved the Cardinals to 5-0 on the season, and that, in turn, got Louisville into the back end of both top 25 polls.

They’re 24th in the AP Poll and 22nd in the Coaches Poll, but that happened on Monday morning. On Sunday night, Pitino made sure to get a rant in about how this team is viewed and why pundits and voters should overlook the scandal currently plaguing his program.

“I think people are looking at that and they’re not really studying the team,” he said, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal, adding that he thinks the team is “just ignored” because of the accusations leveled by self-described madam Katina Powell in the book she published back in October.

And here’s the thing: he is 100 percent correct. Louisville was overlooked in the preseason because the scandal, when combined with the fact that the Cardinals are integrating so many new pieces into their rotation, made it tough to see how they would be able to compete at a level that we’ve come to expect out of Louisville teams.

I know that because it’s why my colleagues at NBCSports.com, against my wishes, refused to allow me to rank Louisville in the preseason top 25. In other words, I’ve had first-hand interactions with the haters. But if we’re going to be honest here, scandal or no scandal, Louisville probably wasn’t going to find their way into the preseason top 25, not when they had to replace Terry Rozier and Montrezl Harrell.

And scandal or no scandal, no team from outside the top 25 is going to play their way into the top 25 by beating the likes of North Florida and St. Francis (NY) without some shenanigans — like Fred VanVleet getting hurt, like Indiana collapsing, like Arizona and Cal and Notre Dame playing their way out of the top 20 — happening around the country.

So Pitino is right: the scandal probably did have an impact on how his team was viewed in the preseason.

But Pitino the scandal isn’t what kept them out of the top 25 until Monday.

That weak non-conference schedule and roster turnover was why.

And if we’re going to be honest here, it probably should have kept them out for another week.