College Basketball Nation: Patrick Patterson

All in all, being an NBA player is pretty great. You get to play basketball for a living, and by "living" I mean "a wildly lavish lifestyle beyond the ambitions of 99 percent of Americans." You get to see the nation's greatest cities. You don't have to be good-looking to attract members of the opposite sex. You get to wear those Dr. Dre headphones for free.

But don't think there aren't perils to possessing otherworldly individual basketball talent. Some players are so good they're compelled, whether they much like it or not, to enter the NBA draft after one season of college basketball. Case in point: John Wall.

During his brilliant freshman season at Kentucky, Wall semi-jokingly mentioned his desire to remain to Lexington, Ky., for another year, which was greeted with a big fat "you're the No. 1 pick, don't even think about it" from his coach, John Calipari. Wall said he had "no choice" but to turn pro, and while he may have been joking, you sort of got the impression that maybe, just maybe, the idea of staying in school for another year was somewhat tempting. Sure, being in the NBA is great. But being an awesome college athlete -- heck, just being in college -- is pretty great, too.

In the end, after Kentucky's Elite Eight loss to West Virginia last season, Wall left. His teammate, DeMarcus Cousins, followed suit. Both were selected in the top five of the 2010 NBA draft, and both are now wealthier than I can even fathom. But by leaving, both missed a chance to be part of this year's Kentucky team, which is having itself the college hoops experience of a lifetime at the Final Four.

So ... do Wall and Cousins wish they'd stayed? Not so much. But that doesn't mean they don't seem to miss going to the Final Four. From the Associated Press:
"Yes, I wish I was still there," Cousins said. "College life was fun."

[...] More than a thousand fans showed up at Blue Grass Airport to welcome the team back late Sunday night after knocking off North Carolina in the East Regional final, the same kind of celebration that was supposed to happen last year.

"I wanted to be there for that," Cousins said.

"I'm feeding off it," Wall said. "I'm happy for my Kentucky teammates. They did something we couldn't do last year. ... Hopefully they can win it all."

Being rich and famous and young and cool and the kind of person greeted with stunned murmurs when they walk into swanky upscale lounges has to be pretty tremendous. But being a part of a Final Four team during your college years isn't so bad, either. Wall and Cousins -- especially Cousins -- seem to realize as much.

Even Patrick Patterson, who told the AP he had "no regrets at all," still admitted he thought "about it all the time how much I miss it." Does that mean he, Wall and Cousins should have stayed for another season of college hoops? No. When you're going to get paid like those three, especially the two freshman, were about to get paid ... well, you go get paid. The college is awesome argument doesn't rank very high in the "should I take my millions now?" discussion. Nor should it.

Still, it's worth noting. These quasi-lamentations do make decisions like Jared Sullinger's -- who is turning down a likely top-five spot in this summer's NBA draft to return to school -- easier to understand.

Most of us don't have millions of dollars waiting for us after college is over, but if you went to college, well, you know the deal. Once you're there, you don't want to leave. And if you think you do, it doesn't take more than a few weeks in the office to know just how wrong you were.

Preview: Saturday in Tampa

March, 19, 2011
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TAMPA, Fla. -- A look at today's games in Tampa:

No. 5 seed West Virginia (21-11) vs. No. 4 seed Kentucky (26-8), 12:15 p.m. ET (CBS)

Kentucky player to watch: Junior Darius Miller doesn’t get as much attention as freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, but he might have been UK’s most important player down the stretch. In the past 10 games, Miller is averaging 15.6 points. He had 17 points on 6-for-11 shooting in the Wildcats’ 59-57 victory over No. 13 seed Princeton in the second round on Thursday, after a solid performance in three games in the SEC tournament. At 6-foot-7, Miller is a tough defensive matchup for opponents. He can shoot from the perimeter, score off the dribble and post up in the paint. WVU coach Bob Huggins might assign John Flowers, his best defender, to guard Miller because he’s a three-way threat.

West Virginia player to watch: Senior guard Casey Mitchell is West Virginia’s leading scorer with 13.7 points per game, but he’s been noticeably quiet over the past few weeks. Mitchell scored only nine points on 2-for-8 shooting in a 67-61 loss to Marquette in the Big East tournament, and then had only four points on 2-for-6 shooting in an 84-76 win over Clemson in an NCAA second-round game on Thursday. Mitchell makes 37.8 percent of his 3-pointers, but he isn’t playing with much confidence right now.

Stat that matters: 1-8: Kentucky coach John Calipari’s record versus West Virginia coach Bob Huggins.

Three things to watch:

1. West Virginia’s defense: The Mountaineers upset the Wildcats 73-66 in the Elite Eight last season, earning their first trip to the Final Four since 1959. West Virginia struggled to guard UK with a man-to-man defense early in the game, so Huggins switched to a 1-3-1 zone. UK never solved the zone, missing its first 20 3-point attempts before finishing 4-for-32 from behind the 3-point line. Of course, West Virginia had longer wing players like Da’Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks to defend the perimeter a year ago.

“[Last year], a lot of their shots were contested, under duress from the 1-3-1,” Mountaineers guard Joe Mazzulla said. “We got them off of the 3-point line and probably a few steps back. That’s just what we’ve got to do tomorrow. We can’t let them get standstill shots and we can’t let them set their feet. If we can make them rush their 3-pointers, and if we can get a hand in their face, then hopefully it’ll be the same result.”

2. Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight: The UK point guard was one of the country’s best freshmen, leading the team with 17.5 points and 4.2 assists per game. But Knight has struggled from the floor over the past couple of weeks, shooting only 32.4 percent in his past six games. Knight hit the winning shot with two seconds left in the victory over Princeton, but missed his first seven shots in the game and never looked comfortable.

“At the beginning of the game [Thursday], guys around me were knocking down shots,” Knight said. “A lot of guys were finishing. Darius was on a roll. So at that point in the game, I didn’t really have to shoot the ball a lot. We were doing just fine.”

3. Kentucky’s bench: The Wildcats really use only six players, with five players averaging 30 minutes or more and senior Josh Harrellson playing about 28 minutes per game. Reserves Eloy Vargas and Jon Hood rarely leave the bench. West Virginia’s bench is about four players deep, as nine Mountaineers average 8.5 minutes or more. WVU’s reserves -- guards Mitchell, Jonnie West and Dalton Pepper and forward Deniz Kilicli -- combined for 28 points in the victory over Clemson.

No. 7 seed UCLA (23-10) vs. No. 2 seed Florida (27-7), approx. 2:45 ET (CBS)

Florida player to watch: Senior forward Chandler Parsons was named SEC Player of the Year without even leading the Gators in scoring. He was third on the team with 11.5 points per game, but led UF with 7.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. During the Gators’ 79-51 rout of No. 15 seed UC Santa Barbara in the second round, Parsons finished three rebounds short of recording a triple-double. In 27 minutes, he had 10 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists.

UCLA player to watch: It’s impossible to miss freshman center Josh Smith, who is 6-10 and 323 pounds. The Washington native lost 40 pounds during the offseason and is averaging about 21 minutes per game. After playing off the bench during the past 10 weeks, Smith started against Michigan State on Thursday and had 14 points, three rebounds and two steals in the Bruins’ 78-76 victory.

“I think when you see somebody that big physically and that strong, the feeling is maybe they don’t move quite as well or they can’t jump as well,” UF coach Billy Donovan said. “But he really does a terrific job moving his feet for a guy that size. I also think the other thing that makes him a special player is he’s got great hands. I think when balls are up on the glass, he’s going to grab it.”

Florida’s big men -- Vernon Macklin, Erik Murphy, Alex Tyus and Patric Young -- will have their hands full trying to handle Smith.

Stat that matters: 0 -- Points scored in NCAA tournament games by UCLA’s players before Thursday night’s victory over Michigan State.

Three things to watch:

1. Malcolm Lee’s defense: The UCLA junior is one of the country’s best defenders and will gladly accept the challenge of slowing down Florida guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker. In the Bruins’ narrow victory over Michigan State, Lee harassed Spartans senior Kalin Lucas throughout the game. Lucas missed his first 10 shots and had four turnovers. He finished with 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting in his final college game. Lee is playing with a slight cartilage tear in his knee and even needed staples to close a wound on his scalp on Thursday night.

“I’ve said before I think Malcolm is the best defender at his position in the country,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said.

2. UCLA’s foul shots: The Bruins shot foul shots well at the end of the regular season, but their work at the foul line nearly cost them a victory over the Spartans on Thursday night. The Bruins made only 30 of 47 free ones against MSU, missing 13-of-28 in the second half. In the final 5 minutes, 19 seconds, UCLA went 12-for-22 from the foul line, which helped allow the Spartans to nearly come back from a 23-point deficit. The Bruins are shooting 68.1 percent from the charity stripe as a team, and forward Reeves Nelson and Smith are both shooting about 61 percent.

3. Florida’s experience: The Gators start three seniors, although they hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game until routing the Gauchos on Thursday night. The Bruins, who have been forced to rebuild after losing a boatload of players who helped them reach three straight Final Fours from 2006 to ’08, don’t have a senior on their roster. The Bruins sometimes make mistakes typical of young teams, like turning the ball over and missing foul shots. Can Florida’s veterans take advantage of UCLA’s youth?

Kentucky, now with more dribble-drive

July, 27, 2010
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Answering a fan's question on Twitter, Kentucky incoming freshman Terrence Jones wrote today that of all the things he's most looking forward to about being a Wildcat, it's playing in coach John Calipari's dribble-drive motion offense.

Players generally like the idea of seeing their play-making abilities accentuated in this attacking offense as do recruits, so they'll all be happy to hear what Calipari has in store for next season.

Calipari, speaking on a Lexy audio post yesterday, mentioned that due to the change in personnel on the team, the Big Blue Nation can expect to see even more of the dribble-drive and possibly a more extreme version of it.
"Right now, I'm spending my time trying to come up with ways that we're going to play the dribble-drive more than we did a year ago, but with this group. We got a left-hander on the team in Terrence Jones. How do we now put him in the right spots so he can do his best? How 'bout this is a team maybe we go with five-out...so that we have the true strength of our team?

"Where last year with DeMarcus [Cousins] and Patrick [Patterson] and Daniel [Orton], we had terrific players around the goal. We had to play that way. Now we do have some strong guys that are bigger players but maybe a little more perimeter-oriented, so I've got to figure that out. My time's got to be spent doing that."

The SEC and the rest of the nation can't say it wasn't warned, and in fact, anyone with a passport can get a glimpse of Kentucky's top recruiting class test-driving the dribble-drive.

Calipari, after all, has the benefit of extra practice days to implement the system after organizing a Canadian tour for the team next month.

Summer Buzz: Kentucky Wildcats

July, 21, 2010
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For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject: Kentucky Insider. Up next? Louisville.

Tuesday, I spent much of the Duke post using the word "change." At the risk of getting repetitive ... ladies and gentleman, your 2010-11 Kentucky Wildcats!

John Wall is gone. DeMarcus Cousins is gone. Patrick Patterson, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton are all gone. Each was taken in the first round of this summer's NBA draft. And that's exactly how John Calipari likes it.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Knight
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteBrandon Knight has some large shoes to fill at Kentucky.
Either by design or by accident, Calipari is forging a new talent strategy at Kentucky. That strategy doesn't mind recruiting one-and-done players. In fact, it actively encourages it.

The difficult part of this strategy is knowing just how good Kentucky is going to be. The 2009-10 Cats were easier. Wall was always going to be a force and Patterson was a star under former coach Billy Gillispie. Bledsoe had the combo-guard skills to start alongside Wall; Cousins was, at the very least, going to rebound. (He ended up doing much more than that.)

The 2010-11 team is much more difficult to predict. Can new point guard Brandon Knight lead as intuitively and seamlessly as Wall? Will Enes Kanter replace the rebounding and interior defense of Cousins? (Related question: Can Kanter get eligible in time for it to matter?) Can new guards Doron Lamb and Stacey Poole give Kentucky some measure of outside shooting? Is Terrence Jones, the most indecisive UK commitment of all-time, good enough to replicate Patterson?

All of that seems doubtful, which is why the Wildcats aren't likely to be as dominant in the SEC as they were in Calipari's first season on the job. There is reason to think this team can be awfully good, though, and the reason is Calipari.

Coach Cal is often maligned as a master recruiter who lacks the X's and O's ability of his successful contemporaries. There might be some truth to that. (The decision not to foul in the 2008 Kansas-Memphis title game might haunt him the rest of his life.) But since the coach hit his elite-level stride at Memphis in 2005-06, Calipari's teams have always been good at two things: Chemistry and team defense.

The former alleviates concerns about mixing in new talent. It also points to a simple fact that some Calipari haters oftentimes forget: The dribble-drive offense. His system works because it reduces responsibility and makes the game simple. In 2009-10, the style of the Cats dictated a slower tempo, but Kentucky's new blood will be running again in 2010-11. Freshmen might take a while to learn college hoops, but it doesn't get much easier than learning it Cal's way.

The latter in that equation -- team defense -- is where Calipari's teams are always underappreciated. Take a look at the defensive efficiency of his last five teams (stats, as always, courtesy of Ken Pomeroy):
You get the idea. Calipari's teams can play defense. So can a lot of other teams, right? So what?

The reason why this is so important for Kentucky is because of Calipari's recruiting style. All of the teams mentioned above featured a bevy of young players. A portion of those players were elite one-and-done talents.

Coaches often complain that AAU and high school basketball is so easy for the best players in the country that they learn bad habits, and those bad habits manifest themselves in poor team defense. "Everybody knows how to score, but not everybody knows how to play basketball." How often do you hear college coaches say that?

Not Calipari. He manages to take the best talent in the country and unleash it on the college hoops world, but he doesn't just do so by playing to that talent's desire for stardom or scoring or high-flying alley-oops. It's easy to picture teams with so much young talent lapsing into lazy summer league defense. Instead, Calipari makes them buy in. On both ends. The result is teams that combine those dribble-drive-created offensive flurries with stifling, harassing team defense. It's just what Calipari teams do. There's no reason to expect the 2010-11 Cats to be any different.

There was simply too much turnover in Lexington this summer to know much about the 2010-11 Wildcats. We don't know how they'll respond to adversity. We don't know whether Brandon Knight can be John Wall. We don't know if they'll rebound, especially now that Cousins isn't hoovering everything in sight on the offensive end. We don't know whether this is an Elite Eight team or a No. 6 seed. We don't know how good they'll really be.

What we do know is that Kentucky will play incredibly efficient defense. We'll see if the rest, as it so often has for Calipari, can take care of itself.
From a college basketball perspective, there was one big winner at Thursday night's NBA draft: the University of Kentucky men's basketball program.

[+] EnlargeJohn Wall
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIThe Wizards selected Kentucky's John Wall with the first overall pick in the NBA draft.
As if John Calipari needed to boost his NBA-friendly reputation any more. And yet he did: Calipari's first season at Kentucky produced the No. 1 overall pick in the draft (John Wall), the No. 5 pick (DeMarcus Cousins), a third lottery pick at No. 14 (Patrick Patterson), and two more first-round picks in point guard Eric Bledsoe and forward Daniel Orton. That's -- count 'em -- five first-round picks. Um, wow.

Yes, it was a good night for the Big Blue, though perhaps not quite as good as Calipari thought. Early in the night, he told an ESPN reporter that this was the "biggest night in the history of Kentucky basketball." There are seven national championships hanging from Rupp Arena that might disagree with Coach Cal on that point.

Still, considering Calipari's most notable coaching talent -- recruiting -- you can understand his enthusiasm. The coach managed to get five players, three of whom were one-and-done freshmen, into the first round of the NBA draft. The last two picks are especially impressive: Bledsoe could have taken his point guard brilliance somewhere else once Wall committed to Kentucky, but Calipari convinced him to stay and play combo-guard, and Bledsoe's draft stock not only didn't fade but actually improved. Meanwhile, Daniel Orton played a measly 13.4 minutes per game in 2009-10, averaging 3.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. And still he was taken in the first round of the draft.

Which is, in the end, the biggest weapon in Calipari's recruiting arsenal: the NBA draft. Calipari already has a track record of producing NBA-friendly talent. Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans, the last two NBA rookie of the year winners, came from Calipari's Memphis program. With Rose and Wall, the coach has now nurtured two of the last three No. 1 overall picks. This is already paying off in recruiting -- top young point guards like Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague have already committed to Kentucky for the next two seasons, and Calipari's point guard production is the main reason why.

But when you extend the depth and breadth of Calipari's draft success -- when you can get your off-guard and a 13-minutes-per-game role player drafted in the first round -- every elite recruit under the sun is going to take notice. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The most talented players will go to Kentucky to improve their NBA draft chances. Then they'll get drafted. Then a new cycle of players, observing the success of their predecessors, will repeat the process all over again.

You don't have to go to Kentucky to get drafted. At this point, though, it doesn't seem to hurt. That's an exciting prospect for Kentucky fans (so long as they're willing to deal with a slew of one-and-done players, and I'd assume they are) and a thoroughly scary one for everyone else.

Where does Kentucky go from here?

May, 10, 2010
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Kentucky head coach John Calipari said he never thought he would lose five players to the NBA draft when the season started, saying he only anticipated losing freshman point guard John Wall and junior forward Patrick Patterson.

"I thought Eric Bledsoe would stay,'' Calipari said. "I wasn't sure about Daniel Orton because of his knee injury and I wasn't sure DeMarcus Cousins would grow as a person and be ready to leave. Once the season ended, I knew I'd lose all five.''

Wall, Cousins and Patterson left no doubt in their cases once they declared with an agent by the initial April 25 deadline. Bledsoe and Orton left the window open slightly by not hiring agents, but then on Friday informed Calipari, as expected, that they too were staying in the draft. All five could go in the first round.

Calipari didn't plan in the early signing period to lose all five underclassmen. That's why once again he had to go through a furious spring to secure elite players. Expect incoming freshmen point Brandon Knight, guards Doron Lamb and Stacey Poole and center Enes Kanter to be in the rotation immediately. Knight and Lamb were late signees.

Calipari will also have wings Darius Miller, Darnell Dodson and DeAndre Liggins and forwards Josh Harrellson and Jon Hood in the rotation.

"We're going to be good, we're just going to be a different kind of team,'' Calipari said. "We do need a few more guys, maybe one more forward.''

Calipari said he will be studying how the New York Knicks play and is considering going with four guards and one forward or at times having five players out to use more of his dribble-drive-motion offense.

"We have enough good players,'' Calipari said. "I'll spend the next few months trying to figure it out. I'd like to have four perimeter guys who are 6-3 or taller and one big guy defensively, who can set ball-screens, trail and run to the post and elbow and play. Hopefully if we face a 1-3-1, we'll make more 3s."

Clearly, UK's woeful 4-of-32 performance from 3 in an Elite Eight loss to West Virginia hasn't strayed far from Calipari's mind.

Calipari to reload after losing five

April, 7, 2010
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John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Daniel Orton and Eric Bledsoe declaring for the NBA draft today was no surprise, and coach John Calipari couldn't be more proud.

Calipari might be losing all of them to the pros, but he should have little trouble reloading now that he can sell a program that has recaptured rock-star status.

The Wildcats already signed small forward Stacey Poole Jr. and have a commitment from Turkish center Enes Kanter, who previously had pledged to Washington.

Also consider that Calipari is a guy who can even sell empty bourbon bottles with his face on it for charity at $49.99 apiece.

To get their hands one of the 24,000 commemorative bottles that actually had alcohol in them, some Kentucky fans camped out next to liquor stores.

Despite the loss, Kentucky is back

March, 28, 2010
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John WallJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesJohn Wall and Kentucky were frustrated by West Virginia's 1-3-1 defense on Saturday. But the play of the Wildcats this season has alleviated the frustrations of the past two seasons.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Kentucky basketball seemed to be back to its royal status as soon as John Calipari was hired a year ago.

The rock star stature of its coach within the Commonwealth and the Wildcat diaspora spread throughout the world believed that the program had returned to its rightful place among the elite as soon as the NBA-ready players arrived, too.

The loss to West Virginia in the Elite Eight Saturday night at the Carrier Dome prevented a coronation. But it shouldn’t be a sign that there is any sort of regression. Kentucky is back, and as long as Calipari is on board there won’t be a significant slide, even with the likely early departures for the NBA for three, possibly four, of the key contributors – freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe and junior Patrick Patterson.

“My teammates and myself are proud of what we accomplished this year,’’ Patterson said in a glum locker room following a 73-66 loss by No. 1 seed Kentucky to No. 2 seed West Virginia in the East Regional final. “We’re not satisfied (with losing in the Elite Eight). We know this is a stepping stone to getting Kentucky back to being a national powerhouse like it was in the years before. Hopefully the teams ahead of us can do it.’’

No one can deny what Calipari did this season in assembling the greatest late signing period class in modern times. Calipari checked egos at the door with this crew, managed minutes, coached a team that could win an uptempo game or in the halfcourt. By the end of the season, they played defense with purpose and passion and won close road games in hostile SEC environments.

You can’t deny the energy that was in Rupp Arena this season. It was palpable. From Midnight Madness in October to the opening tip against Morehead State in November to the regular-season finale against Florida in March.

“We did a lot of successful things this year but we didn’t get the main goal and that was winning a national championship,’’ Cousins said. “I’ve never had this much fun in my life. I wish it would have ended up on a good note for the returning players like Perry (Stevenson), Ramon (Harris) and Patrick who had been through hell the past two seasons. I wish we could have ended it on a good note.’’

The Billy Gillispie era the previous two seasons wasn’t good to watch or enjoyable for the players. Patterson spoke openly about the difference during Friday’s off-day media session. There was chaos throughout last season’s NIT bid. Practices were laborious, not intensely fun. Calipari brought joy back for the returning players while meshing in the celebrated newcomers.

Wall’s beautiful game -- from beating Miami (Ohio), to taking down Connecticut in New York, to his play throughout the SEC -- was something to behold at times. To watch the maturation of Cousins from a hot-tempered man-child to a much more refined post presence was a credit to Calipari and the staff. Cousins was overwhelmingly appreciative of how much Calipari helped him mature and evolve as a player. Wall and Patterson spoke Friday about how Cousins popped off early in the season when pushed and prodded, and how he figured out how to stay on the floor and ignore the temptation to return to aggression.

The fast-breaks, the turnovers, the overall enthusiasm for Kentucky basketball weren’t just good for the Commonwealth this season, but for the sport. College basketball needs Kentucky to be great, just like it needs Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, UCLA and Syracuse to matter. It’s tremendous for basketball when new powers, like Butler, are formed. Or when old ones, like West Virginia and Kansas State, are tapped. Or a newly consistent presence, like Michigan State, emerges. But Kentucky has to be relevant for the overall health of the sport. The lightning rod of the sport is still better off when it’s up than being pounded down.

“Everybody put egos aside for this team to make it this far,’’ Bledsoe said. “I’ll look back at this as a special year.’’

Even if Kentucky takes a major hit from the draft, you can guarantee Calipari will reload quickly with some of the top players in 2010 and beyond.

“I’m proud of my team, they fought and they just kept trying,’’ Calipari said. “I’m proud of what they’ve done all season, a bunch of young kids that just came together.’’

The Wildcats couldn’t solve West Virginia’s 1-3-1 zone. They gave up 10 3s and made only 4 of 32 themselves. They didn’t play with the same defensive lock-down mentality that they had against Cornell in the Sweet 16 or even close to what they had against Wake Forest in round two. West Virginia was the better team Saturday night.

Bottom line: Kentucky failed to reach its expectations for this particular group, and they likely won’t be together next season. The window was open for a national title, or at the least the first trip to the Final Four since 1998. But as long as Calipari stays in Lexington, there will be an annual run toward the title. That’s what is expected in Chapel Hill and Durham and always has been the norm in Lexington. Now it should be a reality.
Darius MillerJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesDarius Miller finished the night 0-for-6 in shooting and missed all four of his 3-pointers.
Sometimes, basketball games are decided in ways the eyes can't see. Sometimes, differences between the winning team and the losing team are imperceptible, made clear only through statistics -- cold, unbiased, objective numbers.

Other times, basketball is really simple.

Anyone who watched No. 1-seed Kentucky lose to No. 2-seed West Virginia in Syracuse, N.Y. probably doesn't need much in the way of numbers to figure just why the Wildcats lost. Kentucky lost because it couldn't make shots. That's it. It really is that simple.

Sure, there are other complaints the no-doubt devastated denizens of Big Blue Nation can lodge. Like Kansas before it, Kentucky probably should have pressed earlier in the second half. The Wildcats probably should have worked harder to get better looks, even when trailing; shooting so many 3-pointers played right into West Virginia's hands. John Calipari probably should have encouraged his team to push the pace more frequently, rather than getting stuck in the sort of grinding half-court style the Mountaineers prefer.

But all of that is moot if Kentucky makes a few more shots. This is the story of Kentucky's year. The Wildcats were as talented as any group of freshmen since the Fab Five. They were excellent or above-average in every phase of the game -- except for two areas: 3-point and free throw shooting. When the Cats lost to Tennessee and South Carolina, it was because they were lulled by their opponents' defense into settling for long jump shots. And it happened again tonight.

We may not need numbers, but just to hammer it home: Kentucky was 0-for-20 to start the game from outside the arc. The Wildcats finished 4-of-32. When Kentucky did eschew the long shot, instead choosing to drive and draw the foul, it was 16-of-29 from the charity stripe, leaving 13 crucial points on the board. The team's 34.3 percent overall shooting was its worst of the season. The 55.2 percent mark from the free throw line was the third-worst.

Against many teams, shooting that poorly wouldn't be a problem. Kentucky is usually so much better than its opponents that its athleticism and talent and strength and all of those other astounding physical qualities that were so evident in UK's blowout win over Cornell Thursday night are enough. But not against West Virginia. The Mountaineers were the one team left in the tournament -- with the possible exception of Baylor -- with enough athleticism to hold their own under the glass with Kentucky. So Kentucky had to make shots. They didn't. Simple.

The opposite was true of West Virginia. These Mountaineers have never been a good shooting team. Instead, Bob Huggins' squad has relied on its uncanny ability to grab all those misses and get easy putbacks underneath. Kentucky limited that part of West Virginia's game, but it didn't matter: The Mountaineers did shoot well. At one point in the first half, WVU hadn't made a single free throw or two-point field goal, but they had made eight 3-pointers. For the first 20 minutes, the ugly-shooting Mountaineers had turned into a very big, athletic version of Cornell. By the time they cooled down, they were getting interior shots from curl screens and back cuts, and their lead was -- despite a few scares from Kentucky's late-arriving press -- safe.

West Virginia made shots. Kentucky didn't. It's so simple that I don't even need to keep repeating how simple it is.

The Mountaineers' win will send them -- and Huggins, who could probably get elected governor of West Virginia at this point -- to their first Final Four appearance since 1959. It also sets up a matchup with the winner of Duke-Baylor, two very different teams that will present two very different challenges. For now, though, West Virginia can enjoy the moment. It took a lot of likely Kentucky misses and a lot of unlikely WVU makes, but however simple it may be, I have a feeling Huggins and company won't much mind.

As for Kentucky: The loss will be especially tough to take for the Big Blue fans, many of whom no doubt considered this UK's best chance to win a national title in the immediate future. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Patrick Patterson will almost certainly be headed to the NBA lottery. Eric Bledsoe, a likely first-round pick, could join them. Kentucky will start from scratch again next season. (Though that's a very talented scratch; Calipari will likely sign another top-10 recruiting class.) UK fans have infamously high expectations. This is unquestionably a disappointment.

At the same time, though, here's to hoping Kentucky fans remember the season they just saw, which, oh yeah, took place just a few months after the program appeared in -- gasp! -- the NIT. When programs fire coaches, they plan for a few years of down seasons and rebuilding efforts. Turnarounds simply don't happen this quickly. Under John Calipari, it did -- and it produced the most entertaining season in the past decade of Kentucky basketball.

It also means that we, the college basketball viewing public, have to wave farewell to the two best freshmen we've seen since Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant. Cousins is a beast of a player, an insanely effective offensive rebounder, and a more polished scorer than he usually gets credit for. And ... John Wall. Well, John Wall. What else can you say? The hype of Wall's arrival was insanely outsized, and yet Wall lived up to -- even exceeded -- every expectation thrust upon him. Both players are going to be very, very rich in a few months, and both players will deserve it. They're that talented. (To those who have problems, many of them legitimate, with the one-and-done rule, I simply say: We got to watch John Wall for a year! It's completely selfish, and I don't care! It was awesome!)

Really, though, tonight is West Virginia's night. Few fan bases are as fervent in their love for the home team. One such group is extremely disappointed tonight. The other is extremely happy. Enjoy it, Mountaineers fans. It's been a long time coming.

Kentucky defense derails Cornell

March, 26, 2010
3/26/10
2:38
AM ET
John WallRichard Mackson/US PresswireJohn Wall and Kentucky are one win away from reaching the Final Four.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -– Watching John Wall get out on the break can be intoxicating.

Seeing DeMarcus Cousins control the paint at times can be intimidating.

When Kentucky has Eric Bledsoe finishing with a thunderous dunk or Patrick Patterson scoring inside or out, the Kentucky offense can be a machine.

What has been somewhat lost is just how dismantling the Wildcats’ defense has become this season.

But during a 62-45 win against Cornell on Thursday night at the Carrier Dome, you couldn’t help but be romanced by UK’s defense for a 15-minute stretch that was as stifling as any team has put on another at this level.

“They saw blood,’’ Cornell coach Steve Donahue said. “Give them credit. We lost our poise and we lost the game.’’

Cornell was doing everything it wanted for the first five minutes of the East Regional semifinal game. The Big Red had the crowd, a 10-2 lead and a national audience thinking the unthinkable.

And then something snapped.

It was as if a magician had just gone poof with some smoke and suddenly Cornell’s confidence, offensive execution and ability to win the game were gone in a flash.

Kentucky outscored Cornell 30-6 the rest of the half. The Wildcats would be up 38-30 with just over eight minutes left in the game before the offense finally unleashed for what was a never-very-easy win and a date with 2-seed West Virginia in Saturday’s Elite Eight.

“It was the best defense we’ve played all year,’’ said Patterson. “It was a total team effort. Coach Cal told us to shut down the 3-pointer shooters and make them take tough twos. We had to get our hands up every time they shot the ball.’’

Man, it was something to behold.

At the beginning of the season, Kentucky was a bit of a sieve on 3-point defense as teams like Sam Houston State and Miami (Ohio) had their way with 3s.

“We were awful,’’ Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “When you play prevent defense, you lose, it prevents you from winning. If you blitz, you win.’’

Donahue was pleased with how easily the Big Red were able to execute their offense in wins over Temple and Wisconsin in the first two rounds of this tournament. Against the Cats, Cornell couldn’t do much for that 15-minute stretch that signified the end of the game, even if the Big Red did cut the lead to six at one point late. The message was clear for that stretch that Kentucky could change the outcome by tightening its defense.

The difference for Donahue was seeing Cousins live.

Throughout the season, Cornell’s 7-foot center Jeff Foote could get the ball in the post and then see if he could score. Thursday that didn’t happen after the first few possessions.

“(Cousins) doesn’t look like he’s that flexible but he is,’’ Donahue said. “He’s way more impressive in person as an athlete. He doesn’t look like he can move quick but he can. He’s got good hands and a sense on how to play. He could probably play harder for longer. But he does everything else. He’s incredible.’’

Foote finished going just 3-of-8 for eight points and two turnovers. Cousins made 7 of 8 shots and did have four turnovers, but he also forced four with four steals.

“It was team defense,’’ Calipari said. “Our five-man helped. Our four-man helped. We made them take tough shots. It takes discipline and early our young guys didn’t have that. We’re 37 games in now.’’

Darius Miller said Kentucky hadn’t figured out how to defend early in the season. Teams were knocking down 3s and “breaking records on us. We’ve come a long way.’’

Calipari doesn’t get the credit of being a defensive-minded coach. But he has made the Wildcats defend. Why do you think Kentucky looks so fantastic on the break? It’s because the Wildcats are forcing turnovers.

“At the beginning of the season, none of us knew how to guard screens and guard the 3,’’ Wall said. “You can’t stop. You have to keep chasing and not let them get an open look.’’

Kentucky had a few lapses again later in the second half, but the Big Red’s 5-of-21 shooting on 3s was no fluke. Sure, Donahue said the Big Red did get some good looks that didn’t go down but they were mostly contested.

“They took the challenge of seeing how we executed last week and took us out of our stuff,’’ Donahue said. “I was disappointed in our guys that we didn’t give it another 10 seconds (during the possessions). We lost our poise and that hasn't happened for a long, long time.’’

Kentucky has been perceived at times as having plenty of flash and not enough substance. That’s simply wrong. The Wildcats defend as well as any team in the country when they apply themselves. Teams like Butler get credit for the low field-goal percentages and scores. But UK needs to get credit for how tough it defends. Cornell couldn’t figure it out.

And if Kentucky is locked in defensively for three more games, no one else will be able to either.

Three Things To Watch is a quick preview of the NCAA tournament's second weekend. It is exactly what it says it is.

Thursday's games in Syracuse, N.Y.: No. 11 Washington vs. No. 2 West Virginia, 7:27 p.m. ET and No. 12 Cornell vs. No. 1 Kentucky, 9:57 p.m. ET

Thing One: Box out, Huskies. Box out hard. In my little daily Saddle Up previews throughout the regular season, one thing was always certain: If West Virginia was playing, we'd be talking about offensive rebounds. The postseason has long since rendered Saddle Up obsolete, but the Mountaineers' still revolve their entire existence around their ability to rebound their relatively frequent misses. West Virginia grabs almost 42 percent of their possible offensive rebounds, the second-best mark in the country. (No. 1, Old Dominion, has since been sent packing.) Devin Ebanks, Wellington Smith and Kevin Jones make it difficult for any team to truly protect their defensive glass.

That trio ought to be doubly scary to Washington, though. The Huskies are No. 96 in the country on the defensive boards. If Washington can miraculously find a way to prevent West Virginia from doing what it's done to pretty much every team the Mountaineers have encountered this year, Washington has a chance. But if those numbers pan out? It doesn't look good.

Thing Two: Turnovers. Despite the whole "no true point guard" thing, West Virginia has been pretty careful with the ball for much of the season. In case you haven't heard, though -- and I'm guessing you have -- putative point guard Darryl Bryant is out for the rest of the season with a broken foot. That leaves Joe Mazzulla, who came up big in West Virginia's second round win over Missouri, to, ahem, handle much of the point guard responsibilities. Can Washington turn Mazzulla over? If so, they could negate one of West Virginia's main strengths and get more than a few buckets in transition.

Thing Three: Oh, yeah, that other game. Is it too easy to just say "watch Cornell and Kentucky, because that game's going to be awesome?" Maybe. But that's pretty much all you need to know. Kentucky treated its first two tournament opponents -- one of whom was a middle-of-the-road ACC team -- like No. 16 seeds. Cornell has put on the tournament's best shooting performance and downed two of the nation's best defensive teams in the process. Both teams are eminently enjoyable to watch, one for its sheer athletic talent, the other for its sublime offensive skill. It's going to be a good one.

And it should be pretty easy to figure out: If Cornell can shoot well over Kentucky's athletic and thoroughly underrated perimeter defense -- and manage to keep Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins from dominating the offensive glass -- this could go either way. No team shooting as well as the Big Red should ever be discounted, even against a team like Kentucky. This thing could happen. And it should be a really awesome watch.

Bonus bold East Region prediction!: Cornell stays hot, pushes Kentucky to the wire, and the Cats miss a series of key free throws down the stretch to fall in what many will consider one of the biggest Sweet 16 upsets of all-time. John Calipari is forced to answer semi-unfair free throw-related questions for yet another year. He is decidedly displeased about this fact. Eamonndamus has spoken!

At the half: Kentucky 54, ETSU 26

March, 18, 2010
3/18/10
8:30
PM ET
NEW ORLEANS -- Upset Thursday won’t be wreaking havoc with No. 1 seed Kentucky’s weekend plans.

The Wildcats were on top of their game in the first half, running, dunking and tossing in 3-pointers at a dizzying pace on their way to a 54-26 halftime lead over East Tennessee State.

This one is a total mismatch, especially with Kentucky deciding to come out and play from the outset. There was no toying around.

The only upset is that there aren’t more Kentucky fans in New Orleans Arena. After taking over Nashville last week for the SEC tournament, the Kentucky fans haven’t converged on the Big Easy like they usually do anywhere the Cats play.

The upper deck is barely a fourth of the way full, and the place isn’t painted blue.

That’s OK, because the Kentucky team did the painting in the first half. The Wildcats had three straight dunks on three straight possessions at one point, two of them alley-oops, and they also were 7-of-14 from 3-point range.

You know what Kentucky coach John Calipari said happens when they’re hitting their 3s.

They bury people.

Freshman guard Eric Bledsoe and junior forward Patrick Patterson combined to make 11-of-13 shots in the first half.
Patrick PattersonFrank Victores/US PresswirePatrick Patterson (54) has adjusted his game in his first season under coach John Calipari.
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- With nine seconds left and a victory against Florida assured, Kentucky's Patrick Patterson stepped to the free throw line. The Rupp Arena crowd began chanting "One more year!"

Chalk that up to just plain greed.

In many ways, it's surprising that Patterson stayed on campus long enough to see the end of his junior season and to be honored during the Wildcats' Senior Day ceremonies on Sunday. Surprising and rewarding, for both parties.

"I'm so glad we've gotten to this point," said his mother, Tywanna. "What he's gone through the past three years has helped make him into the person he is today."

The 6-foot-9 Patterson was one of the most coveted recruits in the insanely talented class of 2007. He played in the McDonald's all-star game alongside Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Eric Gordon and Jerryd Bayless, all of whom are already earning paychecks in the NBA.

Patterson's career, though, has seen its share of setbacks and speed bumps. Originally recruited by Tubby Smith, he signed with Billy Gillispie. An outstanding freshman season ended prematurely because of an ankle injury. Last season, his team went to the NIT as Gillispie got fired.

Then new coach John Calipari came in with his dribble-drive offense and a new role for the program's biggest star. After playing the low post for two years under Gillispie and relentlessly fighting for space in the paint, Patterson was suddenly asked to improve his perimeter game and spend more time on the wing facing the basket.

No longer would he be the team's primary inside scoring threat; that distinction belongs to freshman DeMarcus Cousins. No longer would he be the headliner; superstar freshman point guard John Wall now grabs most of the attention.

"He just says, 'Whatever you need,'" Calipari said. "Think about that. He could have said, 'This is my team and I get all the shots.' But he never did. He just wants to win, and that's why we're 29-2."

Patterson has always had the reputation of a workout warrior, but he admits getting ready for this season took its toll. Especially when Calipari put him with the guards during practice drills instead of the big men, forcing him to work on the unfamiliar skills of ballhandling and shooting.

"Day in and day out in practice, it was tough," he said. "I always caught myself trying to post up more than being on the perimeter. The transition was rough, but it was fun."

(Read full post)

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Quick postgame thoughts from Rupp Arena, where No. 3 Kentucky beat Florida 74-66 on Sunday:

  • The Gators showed they could hang tough against a top-5 team on the road. After trailing by 18 in the first half, they fought back to get within two at 60-58 with 6:52 left. But like the teams' earlier meeting in Gainesville, Kentucky pulled away late. And now Florida may be on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble, ending the regular season at 20-11 and limping into the SEC tournament on a three-game losing streak. The Gators likely have to win at least one and possibly two games in Nashville to feel good about the news on Selection Sunday. If not, they could be headed to their third straight NIT.
  • John Wall had a quiet first half, at least by his standards. But the freshman always seems to make the big play at the most important time, and that happened again Sunday. Once Florida cut the lead to two, Wall found Patrick Patterson off a high pick and roll for a dunk. He then hit a 3-pointer and added a free throw to make it 66-60. The game was never in much doubt after that.
  • The Gators managed to handle Kentucky's size inside and actually dominated the points in the paint at 36-22. But their guards just couldn't get it going. Starting backcourt mates Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton combined to go just 8-of-29 from the field. Walker, who suffered through a miserable 3-for-15 shooting day, missed two wide-open 3s on one late trip with a chance to get his team back in the game.
  • Kentucky clinched the outright SEC title, its 44th conference crown.
More to come after postgame interviews.
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Greetings from Rupp Arena, where we're about an hour from tipoff of the regular-season finale between Kentucky and Florida. Some quick pregame thoughts:

  • It's "Senior" Day for Kentucky, and I put that in quotes because all of the attention will be focused on underclassmen instead of actual seniors Perry Stevenson, Ramon Harris and Mark Krebs, who are all reserves. Junior Patrick Patterson will go through Senior Day ceremonies as he's likely headed to the NBA. And, of course, it's almost certainly the last home game for freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins and perhaps Eric Bledsoe.
  • There's no question which team needs this game more. Kentucky has already wrapped up the SEC title and can be assured of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Florida, meanwhile, is as bubble-icious as it comes in at 20-10 (9-6 SEC) and an RPI of 55. A road win over a top-5 team is exactly what the Gators need to impress the selection committee, especially after losing to Vanderbilt at home the last time out.
  • Kentucky beat Florida 89-77 in Gainesville in the teams' first meeting, but that game was tied with 5:13 left before Bledsoe took over.
  • Should be some fun matchups in the frontcourt. The Wildcats have a ton of size with Cousins, Patterson and Daniel Orton. But Florida can counter with the 6-foot-10 Vernon Macklin and 6-9 Chandler Parsons, both of whom have elevated their offensive games in recent weeks.

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