USA Today/Brian Spurlock

This time, Kentucky Wildcats deeper as they open NCAA Tournament

Calipari likes what he's getting from seniors, other bench players in deeper rotation.

There was a point midway through the season when John Calipari was considering a move he's made with many of his teams in the past.

The Kentucky head coach, unhappy with the production he was seeing from certain players, suggested he might move forward with a streamlined rotation. 

"I'm not afraid to play five, six guys," he would say, citing his old teams at UMass. 

What happened with the Wildcats, however, was exactly the opposite. For a myriad of reasons, including foul trouble, slumps, and minor injuries, UK relied more on its bench late in the season, and it may be one of the big reasons why the SEC champions are riding an 11-game win streak into the NCAA Tournament. 

"It's turned out to be deeper because our seniors have played well," Calipari said of the veteran trio Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis and Mychal Mulder.

Each one of them had key moments in helping the Cats win their third straight SEC Tournament championship last weekend in Nashville, and their coach is asking for more.

"Now Dom, Mychal and Derek, along with Wenyen (Gabriel) and Isaac (Humphries), need to step up a little bit," he said. "All these guys, it's do what you do, just be a little bit better right now. Do what you do and try to do it for 40 minutes."

For Hawkins, that means being one of the best perimeter defenders in the country and creating some transition scoring opportunities.

For Willis, it's giving UK another strong rebounder, using his length to be a bigger defensive presence, and knocking down the open 3-pointer when it's available.

For Mulder, a designated sharpshooter, it's providing a spark when the Cats need someone to loosen up a zone defense.

"Make easy plays," Calipari stressed. "Don't try to lose your mind. Just make the easiest play you can make, make easy shots you can make, and then get on to the next game."

According to Willis, it helps to have a sense of urgency, knowing that this is the seniors' "last go-around."

Hawkins, the consummate teammate, said he's also been pushed to expect more of himself by "a group of guys that actually wants me to be successful," hinting of better chemistry on this year's roster. 

"My teammates want me to do good," Hawkins said. "I want to do good for them."

Last year, Kentucky did not have the same kind of reliable depth and perhaps lacked that sense of urgency. Hawkins and Willis were not playing at the level they are now, and center Marcus Lee, who has since transferred to California, was inconsistent in the paint.

In the season-ending 73-67 loss to Indiana in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Cats essentially used eight players. None of the buttons Calipari pushed resulted in game-changing production. 

"I think because we have seniors who have been experienced, it makes us a different team, a deeper team," he said. 

"This is a team that I'm really proud to be coaching, a young team, but you're also seeing three seniors up here who carried their weight, took over this team when they needed to, were able to step back when they needed to... They've had a big impact on the year, and it's just fun to see young guys come together with veterans and figure it out together. This team is slowly becoming that team."

Their NCAA journey begins Friday against No. 15 seed Northern Kentucky (24-10) at Bankers Life Arena in Indianapolis. Tipoff for the Wildcats and Norse is slated for approximately 9:40 p.m. ET on CBS. 

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