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By LARRY VAUGHT

Not many players would be willing to be as honest as Kentucky sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein. Then again, few college basketball players are quite like the flamboyant Wildcat.

He readily admits that if a “couple of things had changed” that the perception of Kentucky going into tonight’s NCAA Midwest Region matchup would be different. However, he’s not afraid to admit he’s part of what could have changed UK’s season.

Recently ESPN analyst called the 7-foot center the “biggest teaser” in college basketball because of the way one game he would showcase his talent and the next game he would disappear. He did that in UK’s last two games when he failed to score, had only three rebounds and blocked just two shots in the SEC Tournament semifinals against Georgia and then came back with 10 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks against No. 1 Florida the next day.

Cauley-Stein didn’t read or hear Vitale’s comment, but he was not insulted. In fact, he agreed.

“That probably it is fair. It has been like that all year,” Cauley-Stein said. “I will have a stretch where I play three games crazy and the next game it is like hide-and-seek and I am not there.

“It is annoying to me. I don’t know why I do it. I don’t know what happens. I would say that (Vitale’s statement) is pretty accurate and I just have to find a way to get over that. That is just me still trying to figure out how to play a college level game and be consistent at what I am trying to do.”

He was a preseason second-team all-SEC selection, but did not receive the same postseason accolade. He’s averaging 7.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game after averaging 8.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game last year. He shot 62.1 percent from the field last year, 60.2 this season. He has improved his free throw percentage from 37.2 as a freshman to 48.8 as a sophomore.

But stats don’t clearly measure his value because it is his emotion, or lack of emotion, that can impact how UK plays, especially on defense where he is the team’s only true rim-protector.

“I think my problem is that sometimes I think like we have so many people that I can hide a little bit and that is what really gets  me,” Cauley-Stein said. “I shouldn’t play like that. I should just put it all out there every game. Some games I just go into the shadows. If I get a dunk or block here and there or a rebound it is cool instead of going to get every block and trying to dunk everything and trying to get every rebound. That is what kind of separates the way I play each and every game.”

Has he got better this year?

“I don’t know. That is hard to tell,” he admitted. “I think I have got better at some things and other things have stayed the same. Like in the beginning of the year, I thought my offensive game was nice. Now it is kind of like the same as it was last year where I kind scored sometimes and sometimes I didn’t.”

ESPN analysts Dick Vitale, Jay Bilas and Jay Williams offered their thoughts about Midwest Region No. 1 seed Wichita State — and Vitale is already picking UK to beat Wichita State to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

Thoughts on Wichita State
Bilas: “They will out tough Kentucky, but Louisville will beat them in the round of 32.”
Vitale: “I respect what they have done. The Missouri Valley Conference, on the road, is a tough place to win. Last year, I said [No. 1] Gonzaga would lose to Wichita State in the [third round]. This year, I think Kentucky can really change the perception of the year they have had by beating Wichita State. I look for Kentucky to beat Wichita State. They will have to be sensational to beat Wichita State, but I think they will rise to the occasion.”
Williams on returning to the Final Four: “I don’t see it. I think they are a very tough minded team and I think Fred VanVleet is one of the top point guards in the country, probably top two, him and [Florida’s] Scottie Wilbekin. Look at the path they have to take. Kentucky is hitting their stride right now; they’re playing really good basketball. And unfortunately for a team like Wichita State, Louisville gets the four seed in their bracket and we were just having a conversation about Louisville potentially being a one seed.”

 

By LARRY VAUGHT

ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg senses a trust issue with Kentucky.

“You have got to have guys who want to trust each other. They can be good kids, great kids, but there are so many people pulling at them that the last voice in their ear is the coach’s voice,” Greenberg said.

He said the “hardest thing” for a team is not having great locker room and he feels UK lacks a proven leader in the locker room when the coaches are not present.

“The biggest thing they are missing is not having a strong voice in the locker room to explain Cal to the players and hold others accountable. There’s not any freshman that can do that,” Greenberg said.

Dick Vitale and Greenberg also readily agreed that UK’s freshmen were not as good as projected.

“All these projections are comparing them to other high school players and not comparing them to the best of the best. Until they get to the next level, you do not know,” Greenberg said.

“Have they been overrated? Yeah, some scouting services got carried away,” Vitale said. “Sometimes guys get blown out of proportion.”

By LARRY VAUGHT

Even though Kentucky still has time to make a postseason push, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said Thursday that the Wildcats have “been a major disappointment no matter what happens” after starting the season No. 1 and entering SEC Tournament play unranked.

“Look at the projections with all the high school McDonald’s All-Americans and preseason No. 1 and not in the top 25, that is a major disappointment,” Vitale said.

Vitale said Kentucky was “spoiled” by what Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did as freshmen two years ago when UK won the national title with three freshmen starters.

“They bought into John (Calipari) and everything about it,” Vitale said. “This club is up and down and has struggled. I respect John and think he will end up in the  Hall of Fame, but I know he has got to be frustrated. He’s a driven guy who believes in winning and down deep I have got to believe these kids have not lived up to what his expectations were and what all the people’s were.”

Vitale remembers the preseason 40-0 predictions for UK and thought it was “nonsense” for such a young team. But he also admitted he “bought into these McDonald’s All-Americans” being better as a team than they have been and noted how teams such as Virginia, Wisconsin and Wichita State have won with older, but less highly recruited players.

ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg says the upcoming NCAA tourney is wide open because every team, including the highest ranked teams, have flaws. That’s why he said Kentucky still had a “chance” to fulfill its expectations.

“It is a two-week season. They have got to check their egos at the door. Buy into each other,” Greenberg said. “It is Kentucky and bigger than all of us. They have got to be committed defensively and not play on emotion as much as with a purpose but still be aggressive. I think they will play well in the tournament.”

Greenberg and Vitale agree that UK’s perimeter play has been subpar most of the season.

“I think it is guarding the ball. If they can defend and keep the ball in front, it could be fun,” Greenberg said.

“The biggest thing is inconsistency on the perimeter,” Vitale said. “They are so up and down in their guard play both offensively and defensively. You have got to be strong there. John’s great teams were strong there and locked you up and did not allow you to get numbers and had unbelievable mental toughness. I have not seen that. I really thought John some way, some how would get the perimeter group to do that.”

However, both also believe the team has trust/chemistry issues.

“All I hear about is where kids are rated and all will be first-rounders (in the NBA draft). Now look at what you see,” Vitale said. “What happens at Kentucky if they all come back. You’ve got a little problem (with numbers).”

Florida forward Casey Prather (24)charges for the basket as Tennessee guard Josh Richardson (1) fails to stop the move during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 in Gainesville, Fla. Prather scored 12 points to help Florida defeat Tennessee 67-41. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)

Florida forward Casey Prather (24)charges for the basket as Tennessee guard Josh Richardson (1) fails to stop the move during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 in Gainesville, Fla. Prather scored 12 points to help Florida defeat Tennessee 67-41. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)

By LARRY VAUGHT

Dick Vitale will be in Rupp Arena Saturday for the ESPN GameDay battle between No. 3 Florida and No. 14 Kentucky. While he knows how successful Kentucky has been under coach John Calipari in Rupp Arena, he warns that beating Florida anywhere is no easy task.

“They have so much winning experience from the last three years,” said Vitale. “Three consecutive Elite Eights. That’s impressive and gives a team so much experience and confidence. They could definitely win the national championship. On a given night, they can be really, really special. They have size inside, play great defense and have guys that can hit the 3. And they know how to always play together.”

Vitale thinks Casey Prather’s improvement is a big reason the Gators are unbeaten in SEC play and have five league road wins.

“Prather is a good ballhandler and has gotten a lot more comfortable on the perimeter,” Vitale said. “He can be magical with the ball in transition. And he’s a good defensive player as well. He fits perfectly in their system.”

Larry Vaught and ESPN analyst Dick Vitale posed for this picture at last year's NCAA tournament.

Larry Vaught and ESPN analyst Dick Vitale posed for this picture at last year’s NCAA tournament.

By LARRY VAUGHT

If Kentucky guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison play well, veteran ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale says Kentucky is a “tough team to beat” and as good as any team in the country.

He believes the improved “pyche” the Cats got from beating Louisville Dec. 28 helps and the recent break from games to practice let UK “get back to the gym and work with more positives” going into Southeastern Conference play.

“It starts with perimeter play. Your inside can only take you so far,” Vitale said.

He says the Harrisons need to reduce turnovers, get better shots for teammates and become the key to initiating defensive pressure on the ball.

“Michigan State’s guards are as good any guards in the country. That’s how you win,” Vitale said. “Great guard play the key for Kentucky. Their guard play has to be consistent and do it on a regular basis to be a really good team.”

Vitale says Kentucky’s recruiting class came in with a “lot of ability, lot of fan fare.” He admits many, including him, thought it could be the best recruiting class since 1979.

“But you still have got to play together as a unit, not individuals,” Vitale said. “Wisconsin is so good because they are so unified offensively and defensively. They know how to do the little things — spread the floor, get away from traps, how to use the diagonal pass.

“They are searching for that (at Kentucky). They (the Harrisons) are playing based on skill and ability. They have not been able to develop, but they have things you cannot teach. They can handle, shoot. They have got size, toughness and a little swag. They will be fine. It has just taken a little longer than people expected.”

Vitale says Andrew Harrison, the point guard, needs to improve defensively, understand what is a good shot and how to take advantage of other people on the floor. He noted how seldom UK got the ball inside to Julius Randle in its loss at North Carolina in December.

“They are not selfish. They are good kids. It’s just understanding,” Vitale said. “Point guard, and guard play, is essential on any level. If you are not strong on the perimeter, you are going to struggle against quality teams. They (Kentucky) will overpower a lot of teams that cannot match their size and athleticism.”

Vitale then rattled off a list of teams that included Michigan State, Duke, Wisconsin, Arizona and Syracuse where Kentucky, or any team, would have to “execute well, protect the basketball and get good shots” to win.

Sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress are “veteran players with great size” that Vitale says could impact the way UK finishes the season, too.

“They are a factor. I think personally, Willie has got to be much more aggressive offensively. There’s no doubt his shot blocking is an incredible plus. If you are playing Kentucky, you better shoot over the top and make 3’s because inside he is going to reject big-time numbers,” Vitale said. “I think he has to be a little bit more of a force in the low post with his size and ability.

“Poythress was big against Louisville. He was aggressive, active and wanted to rebound. He gives them toughness and experience that they need.”

By LARRY VAUGHT

ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale says Kentucky might even be missing Kyle Wiltjer, who transferred to Gonzaga. He likely would have been UK’s best 3-point shooter.

“He would be spreading the defense and would have been a plus off the bench. I didn’t think they would miss him, either, when he left, but now I do think they miss him and he would have been a major factor in a lot of games,” Vitale said. “(James) Young is their best 3-point shooter, and even he’s streaky.

“But Kentucky is going to be fine. The Harrison are going to be good. They just have to get in a rhythm and flow. They seem out of sync now. The team’s offensive efficiency is not good. But don’t panic. Kentucky is too talented to stay down. They just need that one big win and if they beat Louisville, watch out. Just tell UK fans to stay patient because the good times are coming back.”

* * *

So what do you think? Could Wiltjer be helping this team?

By LARRY VAUGHT

Kentucky fans should not panic. Or at least that’s the advice ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale has in spite of UK’s weekend loss at North Carolina that dropped the Cats to 19th in this week’s Associated Press poll.

Vitale thinks Kentucky, which has also lost to Michigan State and Baylor, will find its way back into the top 10 in the near future.
“Number one, there is just too much talent for them to get back up high,” said Vitale Monday. “Ultimately, their talent will prevail. They played really hard against North Carolina. Really hard. They made some key mistakes, especially on missed free throws, but they will eventually get it together. They just need to get that one big win. Playing at home against Louisville, that could be the key to getting them rolling if they win that game. The win over Louisville could be just the medicine they need.”

Vitale doesn’t think losing to three teams ranked in the top 14 is a long-term detriment for Kentucky.

“You don’t lose anything by losing early. It’s not like football,” Vitale said. “People hear so much great recruiting news about these players, but they have to learn, too. They were all the top options on their high school teams. The ball was always coming to them. They were the guys to always make the plays. Defensively, they could relax and not have to play with the intensity they do now.

“It’s hard learning to be like the third or fourth option and not be the first option like you have always been. It just takes time to blend and better understand team strengths and weaknesses. Playing those good teams helps you do that.”

Vitale says not every player progresses as fast as former UK stars John Wall, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did.

“You expect everybody to do that, but this group just need a little longer to adjust,” Vitale said.

He noted that twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison “have talent” but still need to get “more in sync and cohesive” with teammates.

“There was no cohesiveness at North Carolina between the inside and outside games,” Vitale said. “(Julius) Randle never got in the flow of the game, and Kentucky can’t have that. But the cream always rises to the top, and they’ve got talent. Don’t doubt that and panic over Kentucky.

“That 2012 team with Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist was so unique and all about winning. A lot of these kids are thinking about too much. Look at the body language. It does not demonstrate joy. They are playing so hard and want to please the coaches, fans, family, everybody. They just are not playing in a relaxed, flowing motion like you would want. When they get that, watch out. And it will happen with one major win that they need badly.”

Vitale says early-season upsets are good for college basketball, but fans should “not get carried away” with giving up on a team that loses games early, especially to ranked teams. He says messages he’s got on Twitter from some UK fans questioning coach John Calipari’s ability, blaming officials and belittling players “ruins Kentucky basketball for the 90 percent of the fans” who use logic.

“Right now everybody is just too carried away. People there in Kentucky are not patient, but they need to be with this team,” Vitale said. “Some fans there don’t understand other teams get players and have good coaches, too. It’s not automatic that you just go out and win.

“Hey, they better not take Belmont lightly. It’s a bit deceiving that they beat Carolina because Carolina missed 26 of 48 free throws that game and was actually probably 15 points better. But they are well coached and get the most out of their talent. That game is no gimme for Kentucky, either, and they can’t afford to lose one like that now.”

 

Click on the photo of Dick Vitale to view the video.
Click on the photo of Dick Vitale to view the video.

By LARRY VAUGHT

Once a year Howard Garfinkel likes to gather some of the best instructors he can for the Clinic To End All Clinics in New York. He’ll have his seventh clinic Sept. 28 and for the second time, Kentucky coach John Calipari will be there. So will college basketball analysts Seth Greenberg (ESPN), Pete Gillen (CBS) and Mike Fratello (NBA) at Fordham Prep.

Garfinkel started the legendary 5-Star Camp in 1966, a camp Calipari attended as a player and then worked as a coach. Louisville’s Rick Pitino worked there. So did Dick Vitale, Roy Williams, Hubie Brown, Bobby Knight, Tom Izzo, Billy Donovan, Larry Brown and many, many others. Players such as Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Isiah Thomas, Moses Malone, Kevin Durant, Grant Hill and John Wall played there.

Garfinkel, 83, says he has “four superstars” coming to his clinic this year. He helps them pick their topics and Calipari will speak on coaching, teaching and organizing today’s player.

“I don’t think there’s anybody better to do that than him, either,” said Garfinkel. “I want to have something they are comfortable with, but also something different. This is easy for John.

“He has done this before. He was at my second clinic and did a great job just like I am sure he will this year. We go way back together. I started my camp in 1966 and he was a camper for three years. He won the best playmaker award as a camper. He was a decent high school player and okay as a college player.”

Garfinkel thought Calipari would be a “good coach,” but never envisioned him become the master recruiter that he has.

“He has always been very gracious to me and always been a great competitor,” Garfinkel said. “He was a super coach in our camp. The first year he coached in what we called the developmental league, an invited league for the best rising sophomores in the country. He won the league and he refused to let me move him up to coach all the great superstars in future years. He just wanted to coach the developmental league and teach kids.

“I thought he would be a good recruiter due to his diligence and personality, but not to the extent he has done it. It has been a shock. It’s really a huge surprise anybody could do what he has done, and do it legitimately and without any scandal. It’s been an amazing recruiting job.”

That includes bringing six McDonald’s All-Americans to Kentucky this year, the most any school has ever signed in one season. But Garfinkel doesn’t believe this team can be as good as UK’s 2012 national championship team led by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

“That team may not be surpassed,” Garfinkel said. “I said then, age for age, that was the greatest team in college basketball history. They started three freshmen, two sophomores. I don’t want to put the whammy on John and say this team can be better. When they roll the balls out, we’ll see. But that team two years ago was really special.”

Garfinkel jokes that he calls “Calipari a lot, he calls me back a little bit” before adding that when it is “urgent” he can always reach the Kentucky coach.

“Did you know who his best friends are today? His high school camp and college buddies. He has not changed,” Garfinkel said. “Those are still his best friends. He has stayed the same guy. It is a fact. No one writes about that. It’s amazing he hasn’t changed.”

Garfinkel hopes to have at least 80 coaches — he had 68 in 2012 and 110 in 2011 — for his clinic. If he doesn’t get 80, then this might be his last one.

“Clinics are getting old-fashioned or something,” he said. “This year might be my last. I wanted to do eight because eight is my lucky number.  Hopefully having Calipari here helps attendance.”

He will see Kentucky play Providence in Brooklyn. He also plans to be in Chicago for the UK-Michigan State and Duke-Kansas games. He also annually makes a trip to Kentucky to see UK and Louisville — he’s remained friends with Pitino, too — play a game.

“I try to see Calipari as often as I can without killing myself because even after all these years, it’s still fun to spend time with him and he treats me great,” Garfinkel said.

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