Wildcats back among elite, but with much different ensemble
HOUSTON – Driving toward Reliant Stadium, you can’t miss it, starting down on you like the hot Houston sun. They are bold letters as big as Texas, wrapped tightly around the stadium.
THE ROAD STOPS HERE.
It’s a reminder that 68 teams were invited to the dance and now only four remain. This is where it ends. The last chance to dance – the Final Four.
|Kentucky's Journey to the Final Four|
HOW THEY GOT HERE: No. 4 Kentucky beat No. 13 Princeton 59-57; No. 5 West Virginia 71-63; No. 1 Ohio State 62-60; No. 2 North Carolina 76-69.
STAR: Freshman Brandon Knight had two game-winners in the NCAA tournament, making a tough drive against Princeton with 2 seconds left and hitting a jumper with 5.4 seconds left to beat overall No. 1 seed Ohio State. He struggled from the field in both games before hitting the big shots.
COACH: This is John Calipari's third Final Four, and each has been with a different school, matching Rick Pitino's record. Calipari's runs with Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 both were vacated for violation of NCAA rules within the program. Calipari is one of the better coaches in terms of making in-game adjustments, especially on the defensive end as he did in the win against Ohio State.
KEY POINT: Kentucky is young with three freshmen in the rotation, but it's the upperclassmen who have come up big in the tournament. Center Josh Harrellson is averaging 14.8 points and 9.0 rebounds in the tournament, while swingman Deandre Liggins has been a defensive stopper covering both guards and forwards.
Who is left to take this final dance? Four teams no college basketball expert said could get here, including one squad that is college basketball royalty.
“We’re excited to be here, obviously, and looking forward to competing against the best” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. “I think in this tournament, teams that are playing well keep advancing, and I think all four of these teams have played well against the best talent thrown at them. They’ve competed and done it, and now we are all still standing, so we will see what happens.”
But this Kentucky team wasn’t supposed to be the team that stopped the Wildcats’ 13-year Final Four drought. Last season’s team earned the East’s top seed, lost in the regional finals and then had a record five freshmen players selected in the first round of last year’s NBA Draft. Next year’s Wildcat squad will feature four McDonald’s All-Americans.
While last year’s Fab Frosh class is certainly pulling for this year’s team, don’t expect Calipari to compare the two teams.
“This is a different team, and I’m proud of them and what they’re doing and really enjoyed the ride. This team went from me dragging them to them dragging me. That’s when I talk about, they become empowered, that’s when they become special and that’s what I try and do with all my teams. At different points of the year, you know it. They’ve got it. They’ve figured it out. And now they are dragging me and I don’t have to drag them.”
Last year’s Kentucky class was flashy, sparked by No. 1 overall pick John Wall the ‘Cats rolled to a 32-2 record, but collapsed when the season was on the line. This season’s team has put the blue-collar in Big Blue, depending not only on the fantastic freshmen that have come to be expected on a Calipari-coached team but also on older players like senior Josh Harrellson and juniors Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins.
One factor why Kentucky is chasing its eighth championship is the defensive prowess the team has displayed. UK has shown a smothering defense so far this tournament, holding first-round opponent Princeton to 57 points, keeping West Virginia to 60 points and only giving up 62 points to Ohio State. The Wildcats surrendered 69 to the Tar Heels, 20 points less than North Carolina had been averaging in the tournament.
This Kentucky team is a smooth blend. Calipari has managed to take the talents of freshmen guards Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb and forward Terrence Jones and mix it just right with the other veterans.
The young Wildcats don’t lack in the confidence department.
“Our coach, [Calipari] isn’t going to settle for anything less, even if we are freshman,” guard Brandon Knight said. “He expects us to do things that seniors are doing.”
Knight also knows he can close out the game if the Wildcats need him to take that last shot.
“Coach trusts in me, my teammates trust in me and putting the ball in that situation.”
Calipari understands he doesn’t have to just lean on Knight, other teammates can take that last shot as well.
“We’ve got other guys,” he said. “DeAndre Liggins is an absolute dagger from the corner. Doron Lamb has made shots. Terrence Jones has made plays and free throws. Darius Miller – if we had 12 “game-changing” shots, six of them were by Darius. So we’ve got a bunch of guys that I’m really comfortable late in the game that if you try and take away Brandon, he can give it to someone else and that guy can knock it down.”
This Kentucky team ran the table in the comforts of Rupp Arena but struggled mightily at times on the road. Calipari said after the loss to Arkansas he wondered if the team would even make the tournament.
Now the Wildcats have won eight consecutive games on the road or at a neutral site.
Calipari was pleased when his team finally began to buy into what he was teaching.
“All of a sudden, we stepped up and every one was a close game and a win. Then we go into the tournament and really play well, and the rest tells you why we are sitting here today. “
This is Calipari’s third appearance in the Final Four, but he has yet to win it all, a fact he hopes to change over the next three days. With this tournament wide open, there is a good chance his Wildcats can hang an eighth banner in historic Rupp Arena.
And Calipari promises this one will stay up in the rafters.