NEW ORLEANS – On Oct. 16, the UK men’s basketball team (32-2) took the court at Rupp Arena for Big Blue Madness. The crowd welcomed the youthful Cats and new UK head coach John Calipari with open arms and dreams were born. That’s not to say those dreams didn’t also come with concerns.
In October, questions surrounded the Cats from many areas. Everything from continuity, to playing time, to egos, to position sharing came under scrutiny.
Five months later, Cousins said they’ve never gotten in a single fight all year.
“We’re just a good group of individuals,” Cousins said. “We’re all good people. It was just easy to come together. I really don’t know how to explain it, but it just happened. We just clicked.”
Questions later moved to the Cats’ outside shooting woes. During one four-game stretch in late February, the Cats shot a combined 12-for-73 from beyond the arc.
Calipari said their not a 3-point shooting team, but if they do hit their shots from outside, there will be a pretty big discrepancy in the final score.
“We go 2-for-22 up at Tennessee, and it’s 65-65 with two minutes to go,” said Calipari about UK’s eventually nine-point loss on Feb. 27. “We make 8-of-22 in the SEC Tournament (against Tennessee), we win by 30.”
Now, with the NCAA Tournament tipping off on Thursday, a new question has been raised, and it pertains to the Cats’ youth.
UK’s normal starting five of John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Darius Miller, Patrick Patterson and Cousins has never played a single NCAA Tournament game. Experience doesn’t come from the immediate bench, either. Daniel Orton, DeAndre Liggins and Darnell Dodson, UK’s normal first three off the bench, have also never played a single NCAA Tournament game.
One player who has played on the big stage in the Big Dance is senior guard Ramon Harris. Harris played two games in the tournament in Chicago his freshman season against Villanova and Kansas, and one game his sophomore season against Marquette. In those games the Cats were an eight and 11 seed, respectively. Now, as a one seed in the East region, Harris says he would take talent over experience.
“(Talent) got us the number two, one-seed,” Harris said. “Why not take what we have right now? The talent that we have right now has beaten experience so far so hopefully we can continue to do that and win the whole thing.”
There will be nerves, the Cats said, but that’s not to say it wouldn’t be the first time all season, or even the first time in the past week. Cousins said on Oct. 15 he was a little nervous for Big Blue Madness the next day, and Wall said he was a little nervous for last week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament.
“(The NCAA Tournament) is another big stage,” Wall said. “It’s your last final step to leave your mark for the season with your teammates and try to win a nation championship and bring it back the school, Kentucky.”
Against East Tennessee State, the Cats will be playing to move on and to not become the first one seed to ever lose to a 16 seed. They will certainly have a distinct height advantage over the Buccaneers from the Atlantic Sun Conference. ETSU lists two players on their roster standing at 6-feet-7 or taller. By comparison, the Cats, the nation’s tallest team, has eight players standing at 6-feet-7 or taller.
With the mentality of losing one game and having the season finish, the Cats are still taking the Buccaneers seriously. Harris said Thursday may be the only chance the players at East Tennessee State will have to play against UK, and they’re going to want to make the most of the opportunity.
“We expect a fight to the very end,” Harris said. “There are a lot of teams in this tournament that feel like they deserve to be here and the team that we play tomorrow feels the same way.”
Cousins said they were adopting the mindset of playing each team as if they were Kansas, the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, and didn’t care what seed the team was, their record or the like. He also acknowledged the youth of the Cats and said they didn’t have much experience in the NCAA Tournament, but he wasn’t worried about it.
“I mean, it’s hard to beat us when we come out and play the way we’re supposed to,” Cousins said. “We’re basically unstoppable.”