Cats accepting no excuses heading into NCAA Tournament


Forward Derek Willis trys to block during the game against the Texas A&M Aggies at the SEC Tournament Championship at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, TN, on Sunday, March 13, 2016. Kentucky defeated Texas A&M 81-77. Photo by Michael Reaves | Staff.

With 1:01 remaining in overtime, junior Derek Willis received a pass from Tyler Ulis and drained a three to break a 75-75 tie and give UK the lead.

Even though it ended up being Jamal Murray’s next three that clinched it, Willis may have taken the most important shot of the game. But all he could talk about to reporters in the postgame was his poor defense.

“There was times I thought I was killing the team on defense,” Willis said. “I was miscommunicating, I went one way and left that (Tonny) Trocha-Morelos kid get under and get a dunk. There’s a lot of things I’m really upset with myself about.”

Willis’ only action prior to the SEC Tournament since injuring his ankle against Texas A&M was against LSU in February. In just his fourth game back from injury, Willis still was not giving himself a pass for his play on the defensive end.

“I’m not trying to use the injuries or anything as a crutch anymore,” Willis said. “They are what they are and they aren’t going to go away.”

After winning three games in as many days and taking home the SEC Championship, the Cats are starting to hit their stride, and it has started with the players not accepting any excuses and fighting when they hit bumps in the road.

Injuries like Willis’ ankle and Alex Poythress’ knee, which caused the senior to miss five games in February, are only a few adversities the team has had to face over the season. 

Questions over the team’s ability to be tough inside and win on the road all rose over the season. The SEC Championship showed that the Cats are taking the right steps to answering them.

“Over the year we came into a lot of adversity and everything,” Poythress said. “We had a couple guys injured but we never used it as excuses or anything like that. We just kept on playing and kept on fighting.”

In the SEC Tournament the Cats were able to come away with the title because of that fight. UK was forced to fight an uphill battle against J.J Frazier and the Georgia Bulldogs.

The Cats led once in the opening minute. From there Georgia stayed at arms-length thanks to hot shooting from the floor. But in the end, UK was able to scratch and claw its way to take the lead in the last ten minutes of the second half.

Then in the SEC Championship game the Cats had to play a team in Texas A&M that had a favorable matchup inside.

The Aggies pulled down 20 offensive boards in the first matchup and won off an offensive put back by Tyler Davis in overtime.

The rematch in Nashville was starting to provoke flashbacks as UK was able to hold Texas A&M to 42 percent shooting but still had to play in a tight game because it allowed 17 offensive rebounds.

However, unlike in the closing minutes of the game at Texas A&M, Willis was in the game for the closing minutes and able to hit the shot to give UK the lead for the final time.

“This was the perfect game for us going into the (NCAA) tournament because they fought hard,” Tyler Ulis, who scored a career-high 30 points in the overtime win, said. “That was like a NCAA Tournament game and we came back and fought with them.”

Now with the SEC title in in hand, the Cats face their next adversity with the seed they will receive for the NCAA tournament. 

UK received a four seed in the East region after it was announced that Texas A&M received a three seed in the West region. Looking at the fact that the team was already walking a fine line between being a three or four seed prior to the win over Texas A&M combined with the past history of Sunday’s games not affecting the selection committee’s decision, this seeding misfortune for UK is believable.

John Calipari’s frustration over this likely outcome was noticeable after the SEC Championship game, but just like his team, he doesn’t take the opportunity to feel sorry for himself or his team. Instead he extends his concern for UK’s next opponent. 

“They shouldn’t be playing this tournament on a Sunday then,” Calipari said. “Just shouldn’t because that’s not fair to this program and I’m going to tell you who it is really not fair to — really not fair to the who we’ll have to play. Ask Wichita State, it is not fair.”

The 2013-14 season saw the Cats also get thrown in a tough region because of the high seed they received. That UK team made it to the National Championship game after making an impressive run through Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan. Now with the no excuse mindset, this UK team looks like they could follow it there.