Cats cast with new identity in Vandy win



By Les Johns | @KernelJohns

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Only at UK can a team starting “just” three projected one-round NBA draft picks become re-cast as gritty underdogs.

Somehow, that transformation is exactly what has taken place. The Cats were considered to be so talent-rich that they began the season No. 3 in the nation.

Along the way, sophomore guard Ryan Harrow encountered a mystery illness, freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein had surgery on his knee and all-everything freshman forward Nerlens Noel had his season shortened with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Tons of individual talent remained, but the team never found an identity.

Its new identity was defined Wednesday night in a 74-70 win against Vanderbilt — a team of fighters, scrapping for loose balls and overcoming the odds.

UK Athletics showcased the new rebranding during player introductions, as a fancy video montage was viewed for the first time.

“Tonight is the biggest game on our schedule,” Harrow and Cauley-Stein say at the start of the video.

With season highlights interspersed, several players say, “Let’s fight.”

“Let’s fight like Wildcats,” Noel said at the end of the video, as the Rupp Arena crowd roared with approval.

“Our video guys are good at what they do,” Cauley-Stein said after the game. “I got so excited when I saw it, I started tearing up.”

Cauley-Stein said the team saw the video for the first time tonight during player introductions and that it got the team fired up.

Cauley-Stein played like he was fired up. He scored a career-high 20 points, on 8-of-10 shooting from the field. He also grabbed seven rebounds while playing a career-high 32 minutes.

“Willie has just not been out there enough to have demonstrated performance,” head coach John Calipari said. “He demonstrated what he can do, which is going to help his confidence, there’s no question.”

Although clearly fatigued, he found the energy to block two critical shots in the final minute of play.

“Our coaches told us we do not have to block shots and don’t have to take up for where Nerlens was but set charges and to do the extra stuff,” Cauley-Stein said. “It was kind of uncanny knowing he was about to shoot, I knew he was about to shoot, he has been doing it the whole game.”

When not busy dunking or rebounding, Cauley-Stein waved his hand high in the air to solicit cheers from the 22,887 fans.

His requests were granted, repeatedly. The fans got behind the team and have seemed to buy in to the team’s rebranding as gritty, hard-working underdogs.

Many fans and members of the national media considered UK’s season finished after Noel’s injury and the 30-point drubbing against Tennessee.

The only way to turn the season around was for Calipari to completely change the team. He changed the offense by opening the court up for guards to attack off the dribble and he changed the defense to allow less drives to the bucket.

But they have also not-so-subtly changed the team’s identity. They are now brothers together in a fight, and each game (and maybe each loose ball) is a life-or-death battle.

For one night at least, the team and the Rupp Arena crowd embraced the new roles.