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Kentucky looks to win nation over on its march toward purr-fection

The Kentucky Wildcats take the floor in front

The Kentucky Wildcats take the floor in front of thousands of fans for practice for the NCAA Tournament college basketball second-round game in Louisville, Ky., Wednesday, March 18, 2015. Credit: AP / David Stephenson

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - To most outsiders, at least the many who want Kentucky to lose during the NCAA Tournament, it appears that the Wildcats are plain greedy. Their recruiting has gobbled up two squads' worth of elite players, just to be safe. The Wildcats and their followers, though, say they are the complete opposite of selfish.

Plus, they would also like you to know that they're really nice guys.

"Coach Cal recruited great human beings, other than just great basketball players," said Karl-Anthony Towns, one of the likely one-and-done freshman on an unbeaten team that will be a massive favorite against Hampton Thursday night -- and a solid favorite against anyone else they face from now on.

At 34-0, Kentucky knows that many people across the country are rooting hard that it will not be the first team since Indiana in 1976 to win the national title with an unblemished record. An ESPN poll revealed that the nation at large is strongly pulling for anyone else. The Wildcats are not worried. Nor do they feel like villains.

"That's the game," said Willie Cauley-Stein, a junior who decided to return this season after missing the final stages of the tournament last March with an ankle injury. "There's going to be two sides to everything. You've just got to stay on the positive side, stay with the people who are on your side and who have got your back no matter what. Everybody else who's rooting against you is completely irrelevant."

Throughout their so-far historic run, the players have been polite and cooperative, as they were Wednesday when their locker room was flooded with media people. During their many interviews, they asserted that the key to their success is their unselfishness.

Coach John Calipari asserted that his players willingly gave up minutes and flashy statistics, which each could have had at another school, to play a team game.

"You have a talented group of kids that have sacrificed for each other, been selfless. This is what college athletics is about," he said.

A skeptic could argue that college entails more than one year, but Calipari pointed out that these are the rules. "Now, a kid goes in the top five picks, he's going to make $25 million. His next contract, if he gets a big deal, is another 80," he said. "There are things at stake for these kids and their families.

"You come here to get better. If you want to be the face of the organization, you want to shoot all the balls, you want the whole offense to go through you, you don't come here. And I coach them hard."

The hardest thing is trying to beat them. Hampton coach Edward Joyner Jr. said, "They say we're a one-in-a-billion shot, but that's a shot we do have. At the end of the day, everybody wants to play against the best. We've earned that right."

SMU coach Larry Brown, Calipari's former boss, said of Kentucky, "I think they'd honestly make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference if they were in the NBA."

The team's open practice here Wednesday, a mere 90 minutes away from campus, did generate more electricity than some NBA games. A huge crowd in the Yum Center roared for every dunk in layup drills.

"We have a crazy fan base, all over the country," Cauley-Stein said. "People either want to see history made or see Kentucky lose. Not us as people. They just don't want to see our program's success."

New York Sports