LEXINGTON — Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari continued to praise reserves Marcrus Lee and Dominique Hawkins for the critical roles those two freshmen played in the weekend Midwest Region wins over Louisville and Michigan.
The Wildcats would not be moving on to the Final Four in Dallas this week if not for those two, especially considering the apparent season-ending ankle injury (stress fracture) suffered by sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein in the early stages of the Louisville game Friday.
Kentucky (28-10) will face West Region champ Wisconsin (30-7) in a national semifinal Saturday night around 8:45, with Florida and Connecticut meeting in the other semifinal.
The national title game is Monday.
Hawkins filled a vital role defensively in both of the Wildcats’ weekend wins in Indianapolis, using his quickness and savvy to defend some athletic and talented guards for both Michigan and Louisville.
And Lee was a wonder, contributing 10 points and eight rebounds in Sunday’s 75-72 region final win over the Wolverines.
“What made me more excited was Dominique Hawkins walking in that game, defending the way he did, changing the rhythm of the game,” Calipari said of Sunday’s win. “I also love what Marcus Lee did.”
Calipari said he simplified things for the seldom-used Lee, a 6-foot-10 center.
“You’re only going to do these three things,” Calipari said he told Lee. “Don’t give them the ball in these positions ... just give it here. Go do what you do. The world will be talking about you after the game.
“It’s not just what your stars are doing,” Calipari added. “You’re here to coach everybody.”
Calipari said, in other words, that he and his staff coach all the players like they are starters.
“No one is coached differently,” Calipari said. “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 matters, they’re ready to go.”
But Calipari acknowledges he doesn’t always reach that goal of playing time for reserves like Hawkins and Lee.
“It’s really hard to get yourself ready when you don’t play in six straight games,” Calipari said. “That means you’re a good person. That means you’re mature. Because you know the clutter in their ears is telling them they should be playing more.”
Speaking of, it showed a lot of class when senior Jarrod Polson — the guy competing the most with Hawkins for minutes at guard behind the Harrison twins — said after the Louisville game that Hawkins deserved to play a lot more this season than he has.
Sidenote: Lee said he had no dreams of grandeur the night before the Michigan game. No, Lee said, he was simply dreaming about food.
And can’t we all relate to that?
Speaking about guards and class, how about Louisville senior guard Russ Smith going to the Kentucky locker room to personally congratulate the Wildcats, just minutes after Smith’s Cardinals blew a late lead and lost to their bitter rivals?
Smith talked to the media afterward about how much he respects the game and hopes he’ll be remembered collegiately as a guy who played like it.
Much also has been made about the improvement this post-season from freshmen guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison for Kentucky.
Andrew has blossomed into the point guard he was billed to be coming out of high school, while Aaron has achieved consistency with his perimeter shot and a confidence that prompted a good friend of mine to call him a “cold blooded killer” late in Sunday’s win over Michigan.
“The biggest thing we had to help them with was body language,” Calipari said of Andrew and Aaron. “As that changed, they became different players.
“The second thing was, we had to define their roles better, and I did a poor job of that until late in the year. Their job is to play. My job is to help define their roles, to bring them together, to get them to understand. I’m happy it was done. I wish I had done it sooner.”
Florida coach Billy Donovan said via teleconference Monday that he admires the competitiveness of the Harrison twins.
“I think they’re really good competitors,” said Donovan, whose No. 1-ranked Gators largely breezed through the South Region. “They play. I mean, they play every day. Like any player, there’s probably some ups and downs, good performances and bad, but they play.
“I’m sure through their experiences this year, they’ve grown and learned and gotten better.”
A relaxed Calipari?
Much has been made these past three weeks about how much more relaxed Calipari seems on the sideline during Kentucky’s terrific post-season run.
“People are saying, boy, he looks more relaxed,” Calipari said. “I am more relaxed because I don’t have to look out there and see a guy not going hard, a guy passing up a teammate, taking five bad shots ... I’m not dealing with that anymore. This team has been empowered now, and now I can just coach basketball.”
UK loses Antigua
Best wishes to UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua, who has accepted the head coaching position at the University of South Florida.
Antigua has been, arguably, the top UK assistant on the recruiting trail. He’s also may be the nicest guy on Calipari’s staff, though that’s an arguable point because the other UK assistants (Kenny Payne, John Robic) also are good guys.
“I am so excited that Orlando has been hired by the University of South Florida,” Calipari said in a press release Monday. “Based on what he’s done with the Dominican Republic National Team as their head coach, and his work with our family over the last five years at Kentucky and one season at Memphis, I have the utmost confidence in him to lead this program to new heights. My guess is they will do things that have never been done before at South Florida. We’re all going to miss him and his family.”