ATLANTA, (WDRB) -- I wanted to get a closer look at the Kentucky Wildcats as they put away Georgia 70-58 to advance to the SEC Tournament championship game for the 37th time in school history.
Normally, my view of UK is from above. I sit in the upper deck at Rupp Arena. At the SEC Tournament, my assigned seat is somewhere over Cobb County in the cavernous Georgia Dome. I've had a sideline seat for one game all season -- the loss at Florida, and even then was two rows back and had no clear view of the UK bench.
In the second half of yesterday's game, I came courtside to try to get a closer look at this postseason edition of the Wildcats.
Several things stood out.
First, Dakari Johnson may be emerging as an emotional leader. He didn't have a big stat line in this game, 6 points, 8 rebounds, 0-for-4 from the free-throw line in 23 minutes. He also turned it over three times. But it was his emotion more than anyone else's that this team seemed to feed off of in the second half of Saturday's win.
His offensive rebound and putback with 12:41 left stretched a shrinking thee-point lead back to five with 12:41 left, and touched off a quick 7-0 run that ended Georgia's last serious threat in the game.
After the game, he sat outside his locker and looked like he'd been in a prize fight. His knee was wrapped in ice. He had butterfly stitches sticking out everywhere by his right eye.
"Just battle wounds," he said, with a smile as wide as the swath he can cut through opposing defenses. "I just like to get in there and be physical. ... When I do something good or somebody on the team does something good, I like to let get excited about it and let them hear about it."
"I love the way he's playing," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "He gets me so hyped. . . . He gets in there and just goes psycho."
He wasn't what I would call an impact-guy Saturday, at least from a numbers standpoint. But I could see, when the freshmen on this UK team saw one of their own getting fired up and even acting silly from time to time, it helped them as a group. When Aaron Harrison hit a three to put UK up eight after Johnson's putback, then James Young got a putback himself, Johnson both times was so exuberant in his back-slapping of those guys that they had to smile.
Second, the Harrison twins are starting to figure it out. Andrew Harrison leads the SEC Tournament with 17 assists in two games. That's more than he had in the last four regular-season games combined (15). Raise your hand if you called that.
With UK up eight with eight minutes to play, he took over. He drove to the rim for a layup. He hit a three. He hit a runner in the lane. He hit another three. Ten straight points, to stretch the lead from eight to 14. It was in a stretch where some teams have been able to stay around and threaten the Wildcats late. This time, the game went the other way and UK went up 16 on a dunk by James Young with two minutes to play.
The Harrisons had 25 points and 10 assists against LSU. They had 34 points and 11 assists against Georgia.
"Andrew has been getting it," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "His decisions have gotten better, and then before the tournament he just decided that he was going to focus on passing the ball. And the crazy thing is, the more he passes, the more it comes back to him and the more he scores."
Aaron Harrison scored early on a lob dunk that he had to adjust to catch, then again on a driving dunk in the lane. He made his first four three-point tries and didn't even touch iron on any of them. He's averaging 18 points a game in the tournament.
"I just feel like we're playing more free right now," Aaron Harrison said. ". . . We want people to remember us as winners."
Calipari is battling with his hip. I know others have written about this, and it's been mentioned from time to time. I watched Calipari walk out of the tunnel to the bench before the second half, and he seemed to be laboring. Watching him on the bench, I thought the same thing.
He's talked a little bit about the toll his hip has taken on him this season. He mentioned to the media that he'd been having trouble sleeping, and taking some pretty heavy-duty pain medication to combat that, before deciding to stop.
So the players aren't the only ones who are involved with a physical challenge here. Coaching is a pretty active lifestyle.
I've been viewing Calipari from a distance for a lot of this season, and you don't always see the kind of effort he has to expend, just on game days. Sitting right across the court from him, not that it affected anything he did from a coaching standpoint, but it was an effort just to get up and down, to walk the sidelines. He can do it. But it's probably not as easy as it looks. And it didn't look easy to me on Saturday.
Now, it's time for another test. The Wildcats are playing better. Calipari is calling it "a different team." But as good as they've looked, it should be remembered that they've looked good against teams that will not be in the NCAA Tournament. That won't be the case with Florida.
"They're just starting to come together," Calipari said. "It took time. We're starting five freshmen, folks. Five freshmen trying to do something unique and special."
Dakari Johnson and Julius Randle said that UK was hoping it would get to play Florida one more time if they reached the SEC title game. They felt like it would give them a chance to prove something.
Calipari didn't take the same view.
"I've had enough of Florida," he said. "For four years I've seen the same guys. Some of them I think they've got a program down there where they keep guys for six years. But what a great team. What a great story. You're talking about a team that it's almost an honor to play a team like that. I understand when the game is close they will not give you the game. And if you don't fight like heck, they're taking it from you. That's who they are and that's who they've been all year. . . . My players can say all they want. I'm not looking forward to playing Florida again. But you know what? We are here. I don't think they're going to let us leave, so we're going to play this game and see what happens."
The game shouldn't affect seeding for either team. It will conclude at about the same time the bracket announcements begin. But for UK, against a team ranked No. 1 in the nation, a team that has beaten the Wildcats by double-digits twice, it offers a golden opportunity to remind the nation that they're still around -- and hope to be for a while.