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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.

St. John’s to lose center to transfer

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 13: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats has his shot blocked by Yankuba Sima #35 of the St. John's Red Storm at the Wells Fargo Center on February 13, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Villanova won 73-63. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
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Yankuba Sima will transfer out of the St. John’s program, the school announced on Friday.

“I want to thank the coaching staff and the administration for all of their support since I arrived at St. John’s,” said Sima. “I enjoyed my experience at St. John’s, but right now I feel it is best for me to explore options that will be a better fit for me as I work toward my goals.”

“We wish Yankuba the best of luck,” said head coach Chris Mullin. “I know this wasn’t an easy decision for him, but we respect and understand it. He’s a good basketball player and a good person with a bright future ahead.”

Sima started 26 of the 34 games he played with the Johnnies, including eight starts this season. He was averaging 6.0 points and 3.5 boards this year.

Kansas forward arrested on suspicion of battery

DES MOINES, IA - MARCH 19:  Carlton Bragg Jr. #15 of the Kansas Jayhawks reacts after scoring in the first half against the Connecticut Huskies during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 19, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. was arrested on suspicion of domestic battery, according to a report from the Kansas City Star.

Bragg, who was still in custody as of Friday morning, is being held without bond. No charges have yet been filed.

“We are still trying to gather information,” head coach Bill Self told The Star. “But it is a charge which we take very seriously.”

Bragg is a 6-foot-8 sophomore that lost his spot in the starting lineup earlier this year. He is averaging 7.8 points and 5.3 boards in 16 minutes. No. 3 Kansas hosts Nebraska on Saturday.

Frank Martin comments on Sindarius Thornwell suspension

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26:  Sindarius Thornwell #0 of the South Carolina Gamecocks drives to the basket defended by Tyler Lydon #20 of the Syracuse Orange in the second half during the Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational at Barclays Center on November 26, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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South Carolina head coach Frank Martin commented on Sindarius Thornwell’s suspension during his call-in show on Thursday.

Thornwell, who was the leading scorer for the 8-0 No. 19 Gamecocks, was suspended indefinitely last Sunday. Martin has yet to provide a reason for the suspension.

“He’s been with us at practice, he’ll travel with us, he’s excited about our team, his role on the team,” he said, according to South Carolina’s 247 site. “Sindarius is one of my favorite guys I’ve ever come across. He messed up and it is what it is. He’s like a son to me. He messed up and he’s owned up to his mess up.”

“Outside of that, I’m not going to get into anything else. He has my full support. Our job is to prepare our team to play, we don’t prepare individual players to play. It’s no different to someone rolling an ankle. We’re down because of a bad decision. We’ll be fine.”

Thornwell is averaging 18.7 points, 6.0 boards and 4.1 assists. The Gamecocks play Seton Hall in New York City on Monday night.

UCF star point guard out indefinitely with thumb injury

STORRS, CT - JANUARY 22: B.J. Taylor #1 of the Central Florida Knights carries the ball up the court in front of Ryan Boatright #11 of the Connecticut Huskies in the first half during the game at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion on January 22, 2015 in Storrs, Connecticut.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Sophomore guard B.J. Taylor is out indefinitely after suffering a hand injury, UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins confirmed at a press conference earlier today.

According to a report from 247 Sports’ UCF site, the injury is a broken thumb, which was suffered in Saturday’s win over UMass.

Taylor is not expected to miss the rest of the season but will be out for an extended amount of time. He missed all of 2015-16 season dealing with a foot injury.

On the season, Taylor, a 6-foot-2 point guard, was having an all-AAC caliber season, averaging 17.0 points, 5.0 assists and 4.3 boards.

Weekend Preview: Villanova tested by Notre Dame, bounce-backs for Xavier, Butler

Notre Dame's Steve Vasturia (32), Bonzie Colson (35) and V.J. Beachem (3) talk during the second half of a first-round men's college basketball game against Michigan in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 18, 2016, in New York. Notre Dame won 70-63. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 23 Notre Dame, Sat. 12:00 p.m.: This is a fascinating matchup for a couple of reasons. For starters, this is the first real test that undefeated Notre Dame is going to be getting this season. We honestly have no idea how good the Irish actually are, and you wouldn’t be alone in needing to see a team starting Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson prove it before buying in.

But we also haven’t see Villanova tested in a while, either. They won at Purdue earlier this season and, since then, have more-or-less coasted to their undefeated mark. This will not only be a nice gauge game for Villanova, but it will also be a chance for them to pad an NCAA tournament résumé that will need to be strong for them to get a No. 1 seed this year.

The other part of this that’s fascinating? Both of these teams play small ball. There are going to be times on Saturday where 6-foot-5 Bonzie Colson is playing center and being guarded by 6-foot-5 Kris Jenkins, who will be at center for the Wildcats.

No. 22 Cincinnati at No. 16 Butler, Sat. 4:30 p.m.: Butler could really use this win. Coming off of a road loss to Indiana State during the week, the Bulldogs will be playing back in Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday. But here’s the thing: Cincinnati could really use this win as well, and that Bearcat program already owns a road win over Iowa State.

The matchup here will be intriguing as well. Butler plays a more open, run-and-gun style than they did under Brad Stevens. Tyler Lewis is a show-man in transition, as is Kamar Baldwin, and getting Kelan Martin spotting up or attacking a close out is always a good coaching maneuver. Cincinnati is tough and big and physical. They try to wear you down. They pound the glass. They really, really defend. How does Butler handle it?

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FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • No. 17 Wisconsin at Marquette, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: In one of the more under-appreciated rivalries in college basketball, Marquette will be looking to land a marquee win to bolster the non-conference portion of their NCAA tournament résumé. Will
    Nigel Hayes continue to play like an all-american?
  • Utah at No. 13 Xavier, Sat. 5:30 p.m.: The Musketeers have lost back-to-back games and are really struggling to shoot the ball from the perimeter. Utah has struggled this season as they have a young roster waiting on a pair of transfers to get eligible.
  • Michigan at No. 2 UCLA, Sat. 8:00 p.m.: UCLA is now a week removed from their win over then-No. 1 Kentucky in Rupp Arena. This will be the first time they see the floor since then. Michigan had the look of a tournament team earlier in the season, but they’ve lost a pair of winnable games in recent weeks.
  • Hofstra vs. No. 6 Kentucky, Sun. 3:00 p.m.: The Wildcats will square off with Hofstra on Sunday, a game that is only really notable because it will be played in the Barclays Center.
  • No. 21 Florida at Florida State, Sun. 4:00 p.m.: The Gators looked the part of an NCAA tournament team when they lost to Duke in New York City on Tuesday. Florida State is more talented, however, but it’s difficult to trust them. This will be a big win for whoever gets it.

FIVE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Kentucky’s perimeter shooting is officially a concern: The Wildcats are currently shooting 32.2 percent from beyond the arc, which is 254th nationally. The only real threat they have from three in their starting lineup is Malik Monk, and he’s streaky. They can play Derek Willis at the four, but Willis is such a step-down on the defensive end of the floor from Wenyen Gabriel that it may not end up being a net-positive to play him, not when the Wildcats rely so heavily on their defense to create offense in transition.

I’m not sure what the answer is. I’m not even sure there is an answer. This is just what Coach Cal has to work with this season. Can they improve? Probably. The great thing about being a bad shooting team is that shooting is the easiest thing to develop. Teams without size can’t get bigger. Teams without athleticism can’t get more athletic. The only problem? There are just four months left of the season. How much better can Kentucky really get?

One thing worth noting here: The 2010 Kentucky team, the one with John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, the one that lost in the Elite 8 because of their shooting issues, finished the season making 33.1 percent of their threes.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 07:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Valparaiso Crusaders at Rupp Arena on December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

2. Let’s see if Notre Dame is for real: The Fighting Irish are one of nine undefeated teams left in college basketball, but as good as they have been this season, Mike Brey’s club still hasn’t really beaten anyone. The Colorado win looks better after the Buffaloes beat Xavier. Beating Fort Wayne, the team that upset Indiana, is good. Northwestern and Iowa are Big Ten teams.

But none of those four wins – none of Notre Dame’s nine wins – have come against a team we know will be in the NCAA tournament. We know Villanova will be, and the interesting thing about this matchup is how well the two teams matchup, particularly up front. Neither the Irish nor the Wildcats have much size inside. If Notre Dame can pull off the upset, it will be time to start talking about them much more.

3. UCLA’s first action since the win at Kentucky: The last time that we saw the Bruins take the court they put up 97 points on Kentucky in Rupp Arena. That’s pretty good. It’s also an easy way to get a big head, especially for a team that has so many freshmen on the roster. UCLA will face off with Michigan at home on Saturday. It will be interesting to see how they come out early on in this one.

4. Bounce-back chances for Big East programs: No. 13 Xavier has lost two games in a row now, both of them coming on the road. They were felled at No. 4 Baylor before getting dropped at Colorado on Wednesday. The Musketeers will host Utah, a winnable game that could help them find a rhythm shooting the ball.

No. 16 Butler is coming off of a loss of their home, having been upset at Indiana State by the Sycamores. The Bulldogs will have a bigger test than the Musketeers, as they host a top 25 team in No. 22 Cincinnati.

5. Jonathan Isaac’s health, Florida State’s tournament hopes?: Isaac is the forgotten top ten pick. He’s been terrific this season and has a chance to play his way into the top ten if he continues doing what he’s been doing, but he’s missed the last two games with a hip injury. This is an important game for the Seminoles, as they host Florida this weekend. Will Isaac be available?