College Basketball Nation: Terrence Jones

3-point shot: NBA draft in sight

June, 27, 2012
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1. Jared Sullinger, Terrence Jones and Perry Jones III all returned for their sophomore seasons to be top-five picks and compete for a national title. None was invited to the NBA draft green room Thursday night. But none of them should regret a thing. Terrence Jones won a national title at Kentucky and wasn’t ready emotionally after his freshman season to leave, let alone from a basketball perspective. Sullinger reached the Final Four with Ohio State. Perry Jones III got to the Elite Eight with Baylor. Neither of them was ready a year ago, either. Revisionist history isn’t appropriate here. All three should still land in decent situations Thursday.

2. Terrence Ross was a late addition to the draft. The Washington sophomore wing could be a legit pick for Milwaukee, Phoenix or Philadelphia at Nos. 12, 13 and 15, respectively. Had Ross played in the Big East or the ACC he would probably be a household name. Having played at UW doesn’t mean he'll go higher, since teams are well aware of players all over the country (see Weber State’s Damian Lillard), but recognition of Ross wouldn’t be a question Thursday night.

3. As the NBA heads into the final two days of pre-draft drama, there are a number of teams looking to make a move. Milwaukee and Houston want to move up. Sacramento is willing to move down. Cleveland would love to get to No. 2. Charlotte could easily move back, even after the latest trade to get Ben Gordon. Golden State has plenty of flexibility and can stay where it is or move.
1. Kentucky coach John Calipari will be in Newark Thursday to see what he hopes is another record night. He has been touting a stat that is hard to beat: Every Wildcats starter for the past three seasons has been or will be an NBA draft pick. The only player that could be a question mark heading into Thursday is Darius Miller; but I expect him to go in the second round. The Wildcats will likely see five starters drafted in the first round: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague. Teague will go likely fifth among the playmaking group that includes Dion Waiters, Damian Lillard, Austin Rivers and Kendall Marshall.

2. Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said the Seminoles will surprise some people next season “like we always do.’’ FSU has had a few workouts and will have even more once the next summer session starts. Hamilton reports junior forward Terrance Shannon, who didn’t play after losing to UConn on Nov. 26 due to a shoulder injury, is coming along quite well. And Hamilton said the leadership out of big shot Michael Snaer and Ian Miller is already taking shape in offseason workouts. The Seminoles were a first-place ACC team in the middle of the conference season and ended up finishing 12-4, 25-10 overall before losing to Cincinnati in the third round of the NCAA tournament.

3. Replacing Mike Dunlap on the St. John’s staff may be as important as all the players Steve Lavin signed this year. Dunlap was hired because of his player development skills and the Red Storm will once again have a young roster. Lavin needs to find a strong candidate who can handle a similar role during a critical season for St. John’s. Lavin doesn’t need a recruiter in that position, he needs a coach who will be in the trenches and in the gym.
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WASHINGTON D.C. -- The Kentucky contingent went through two practice runs on the dais to make sure they got it just right. No one, after all, wants to mess up the procession into the East Room and the presentation of a jersey, ring and ball to President Barack Obama.

There was a scattering of people in the room at first, mostly security personnel and White House staffers when Kentucky first entered. But as soon as the doors opened to allow invited guests in, Kentucky fans painted the East Room blue.

They weren’t all dressed in UK colors, but they sure were boisterous -- even starting a few C-A-T-S chants.

Teams arriving for the now-annual celebrations that started under the late President Reagan are always celebratory, but not usually as euphoric as Friday.

After witnessing three of the past four NCAA men’s basketball champs to come to the White House, I can tell you that no fan base has rivaled Kentucky's.

“I didn’t know it was going to be like that,’’ UK senior Darius Miller said. “It filled up fast. It was empty and then in five seconds it was full.’’

This is a program that can easily sell out a mundane practice. So no one should be surprised that the Big Blue Nation showed up.

But there was more to Friday then the annual meet-and-greet with the President. This was the last time the Kentucky players were together as one team.

Five of them declared early for the NBA draft, and that group -- as well as Miller -- will likely get a chance to be together at the Chicago pre-draft camp next month and again at the NBA draft in June. But all of them together? This was it.

And what better way to go out than a ribbing from the Commander-in-Chief.

President Obama had picked, like many of us, Kentucky in the final as he filled out his bracket for ESPN for the fourth straight year. He originally wanted to go with the Wildcats to win it all, but changed his mind and chose North Carolina in the end.

[+] EnlargeKentucky at the White House
AP Photo/Carolyn KasterPresident Barack Obama welcomed national champion Kentucky to the White House on Friday.
“I had them in the championship game," he said Friday. "But in the end, I thought, they got all these freshmen. These guys are too young. And keep in mind, at this time last year, three of the Wildcats’ five starters were still in high school. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist couldn’t even vote yet.

“But let’s face it, sometimes talent trumps experience. And sometimes, a bunch of young players, even if they’re used to being big fishes in their ponds, even if they’ve never played together before, they can buy into a system, they understand the concept of team, and they do something special right away. And that’s exactly what happened in Kentucky.”

As soon as they got to the White House, the Wildcats did what they had throughout the season.

They stayed together as a pack one last time, taking pictures with their iPhones, enjoying a fast-paced tour as quick as the run Kentucky put on Baylor in the Elite Eight.

National player of the year and projected No. 1 pick Anthony Davis as well as Doron Lamb, Marquis Teague, Terrence Jones, Miller and Kidd-Gilchrist were dressed in fine-tailored suits, not Kentucky uniforms. But they were a team just the same.

They loved cruising through the White House movie theater, posed in front of a bust of Abraham Lincoln, and just enjoyed each other’s company.

“I may never coach another group like this,’’ Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I’ve never seen a group come together for each other since I’ve been coaching.’’

Lamb said that this team truly liked being with each other on and off the court. This group was selfless from the first game to the final against Kansas in New Orleans.

Miller couldn’t get over how wild his UK career has been. He was recruited by Billy Gillispie, grew and fostered under Calipari, won a title and met two presidents. Former President Bill Clinton was in Lexington recently.

“This is just another great memory to add to the collection,’’ Miller said.

Kentucky had a traveling party of 51 (would you expect anything smaller?). And while the Wildcats played in front of 70,000-plus at the Superdome, this rivaled the anxiety of that night.

The players said they were a bit more nervous walking out on the Dome court, but there were anxious moments in meeting Obama and being on this smaller, albeit historic stage.

Calipari, who spoke after the President, was as anxious as anyone.

“I was just so nervous,’’ Calipari said. “I didn’t breath until I stepped away from the podium. I’ve given speeches to 15,000 and I was more nervous doing this.’’

But now that the celebration of the title is over, the Wildcats will go their separate ways. The semester is finished. The early-entrants will select agents and get ready for the NBA draft. Miller and Eloy Vargas, the two seniors, will prepare for their post-college life, which will include professional basketball.

Freshman Kyle Wiltjer is the lone productive returenee. He said it will be odd to lose all of these players, but he’s up for the challenge and said he can’t wait to play with the new players.

Kentucky brought in another strong class, a new crop, this time led by another star in the middle named Nerlens Noel.

But for Friday, for one last time in front of a strong, loud and proud contingent from Big Blue Nation, the 2012 champs were together.

“We had such a special group of guys and had such a successful year,’’ Jones said. “For this to be the last thing is such a great way to finish.’’
When you really think about it, sports autographs are strange, aren't they? I suppose when you break the idea down, it makes sense: Fans want to feel an emotional connection with their favorite players, and what could be more emotional than exchanging/obtaining that athlete's personal, self-ascribed mark of identification? Still, the concept of people lining up to score an autograph from a former college basketball player, even a national champion -- it's always seemed weird to me. It's both charming and obsessive.

Which, naturally, brings us to Kentucky. The tales of Big Blue Nation's love for all things Wildcats will not shock you; once you've seen a UK fan coast his power scooter up a curb in pursuit of practice tickets, it's hard to be shocked by much. But even so, Terrence Jones' Instragram photos are worth a look.

On Sunday, Jones, former UK power forward, reigning national champion and likely NBA lottery pick, signed autographs in a Russell Springs, Ky., pharmacy and a Frankfurt, Ky., restaurant, both of which he broadcast from his Twitter feed. And so it was that Jones tweeted out what he described as the "best" and "second-best" photos of the day.

The "best?" Jones signing a baby. The purported second-best? Why, that's Jones signing a pregnant woman's stomach.

I'm with the Lexington Herald-Leader's John Clay: The pregnant-stomach photo has to be best of the day.

In any case, I have questions: Doesn't that marker wash off pretty quickly? What happens to the autograph? Do you take a photo and save that for posterity? That's like having the autograph, but not exactly; the photo of your stomach isn't itself signed, so it surely loses its value on the autograph market. According to Jones' tweets Sunday, only one personal item was signed for free. Does a stomach count as a personal item? Or did the woman get a T-shirt or cap out of the deal, too?

In any case, chalk it up to the benefits of winning a national title at Kentucky. You'll be loved forever, to the point you'll be asked to sign both born and unborn offspring. That kind of love is strange, sure, but it's also unconditional, and there's something to be said for that.

Video: Davis, Jones on entering draft

April, 17, 2012
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Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones talk about leaving Kentucky for the NBA draft.

One by one they said thank you, making like Oscar or Emmy winners during the award season -- acknowledging the directors (their parents), the producers (their coaches), the co-stars (their teammates) and ticket buyers (the fans) -- before walking off the dais to meet for quick interviews with the reporters assembled in Lexington.

And then, poof! The better part of the 2012 Kentucky national championship roster and 92.3 percent of that championship-winning offense all but disappeared from college basketball.

Commence handwringing in 5 … 4 … 3 …

And then stop. Just stop it.

Stop complaining that John Calipari is a used car salesman and his players are mercenaries.

You can fret over the bastardization of academics or denounce the death of college ideals until you are as purple as Frank Martin during a 15-point loss.

It won’t change a thing. Until the NBA decides that, like skilled carpenters or master craftsmen, basketball players don’t necessarily need to go to college, we will live in the age of the flyby.

John Calipari is a businessman running a multimillion-dollar business, not a coach with a whistle in charge of a CYO team. His players are junior entrepreneurs, interning for a year before cashing in on the big gig, not plucky kids hoping to get a chance.

“I expect six first-round picks [from the same school] for the first time in the history of the world,’’ Calipari told Rivals.com recently.

It was yet another pitch-perfect hyperbolic statement from the game’s P.T. Barnum. (Yes, this could very well be a first in NBA draft history, but it’s not likely to make world almanacs in Kazakhstan.)

But the ringmaster does have a point: The history of our world, the basketball world, is being rewritten before our eyes. This isn’t 1972. Bill Walton isn’t slinging hook shots in tube socks and short shorts.

[+] EnlargeKentucky Wildcats
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesKentucky's five starters from this season's championship team will all be leaving for the NBA draft.
This is 2012 and this is the way the game is played, literally and figuratively.

Am I a fan? Absolutely not. I prefer my college athletes have more staying power than a fraternity party hook up. I prefer that the term upperclassmen refer to someone with a little more seniority than a sophomore.

I believe college is a privilege, not a layover. And I believe learning is a gift, not an inconvenience.

I like continuity. I like when fans can invest in a person and not just a player because they actually have time to get to know the person before the player moves on.

But I’m also a realist and I realize that conventions don’t last. The construct of the rules dictate how the game is played, and one overriding rule from 1972 still applies: He who has the best players wins.

Kentucky will continue to win because Calipari will continue to get the best players.

Two years ago, traditionalists gasped when the coach blasphemed that the NBA draft day was the greatest in Kentucky basketball history. You know what? Barnum was right about that, too. The NBA draft is now Kentucky’s biggest recruiting tool, where future championships are born. It’s like a home visit for Calipari.

So Mom and Dad. You want your boy to succeed in his field of choice, the field being basketball? Well, tune in on June 28 and watch. UK is to basketball as MIT is to engineering.

Yes, this team was unique because a bunch of could-be prima donnas played like a JV team, sharing the ball and glory without complaint. But if it can happen once, it can happen twice or three times or however many times you can count. Don’t think Calipari won’t point to the banner he’ll hang at the start of next season whenever a new player wants to go diva.

Perhaps this is not a dynasty in the making in the traditional sense, but make no mistake, it is a 21st-century version. We can no longer argue that you can’t win with a bunch of freshmen, because Kentucky just did. We can no longer argue that constantly turning over the roster will lead to disaster, because in three years, the Wildcats went from Elite Eight to Final Four to national champion.

We can no longer assume that this team, this program, will be a flash in the pan. Not when John Wall begets Brandon Knight and Anthony Davis begets Nerlens Noel.

Calipari also said that his is a players-first program. Well there he was wrong. It’s a players-first world and we’re all just happy to orbit it. Just ask Stan Van Gundy.

It may not be palatable to the traditionalists among us. It may, frankly, be downright disheartening.

But it’s reality.

So long as the rules are written to allow for a college drive-thru service, this is the way the world will work.

On April 11, Noel spun around in a chair to reveal a shaved UK insignia in the back of his head, thereby signifying his intent to attend Kentucky.

In April 2013, there’s a good chance Noel will sit at the same dais Davis, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague just used to announce he’s going to the NBA.

And once again, folks will fret and scream and denounce.

And in between, Kentucky will win a lot of games, maybe even the big one again.

Because this is college basketball 2012.

It’s not "The Waltons."
Nerlens Noel Mark L. Baer/US PresswireNerlens Noel gives Kentucky the top-five recruit that marks a typical John Calipari class.


Kentucky is Kentucky, and UCLA is back.

Those are the two immediate takeaways from Wednesday night’s big college hoops recruiting announcements, when the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the Class of 2012 -- center Nerlens Noel and small forward Shabazz Muhammad -- announced their decisions within an hour of each other live on ESPNU.

The final result? Muhammad chose UCLA. Noel chose Kentucky. Life in Westwood immediately got brighter. Life in Lexington remained almost unfairly good. And despite all the anticipation and hype, in the end, neither of these decisions was particularly surprising.

UCLA coach Ben Howland was long the favorite to land Muhammad. The Las Vegas native never revealed his intentions, but the recruiting rumor mill -- I’m hearing UCLA, it’s definitely UCLA, that sort of thing -- always seemed to peg Muhammad as a future Bruin. Even after Howland endured the most embarrassing moment of his career this spring, thanks to Sports Illustrated writer George Dohrmann’s evisceration, Muhammad’s family didn’t discount the program or wave it off. Indeed, the Bruins’ recent downward spiral was apparently an attraction.

“Knowing how bad they were the last two years, it’s a challenge to get them back up to the top,” Muhammad said.

That’s good news for UCLA, because he is right: The Bruins and their head coach are indeed desperately in need of a massive, wholesale turnaround in production and perception in the years to come. After disappointing, disjointed seasons in two of the past three years, fans openly revolted against the program in 2012.

Now, with Muhammad and fellow top-five recruit Kyle Anderson on board, as well as the Wear twins and still-promising, still-frustrating forward Joshua Smith, the Bruins have a legitimate chance to make a run at the Pac–12 title in 2012–13. In the meantime, athletics director Dan Guerrero will unveil a newly renovated Pauley Pavilion, hoping this influx of talent can revitalize a fan base that tuned its beloved Bruins out for much of the past three seasons.

“Hopefully we can sell out Pauley Pavilion,” Muhammad said.

The kid gets it. The stink of recent Westwood frustration won’t dissipate overnight. But with his talents on board, Howland can still change his program’s dire narrative while he still has time.

John Calipari has no such problem. You saw the Wildcats in March: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague were each the top players at their respective positions in the Class of 2011, and as they mixed and congealed with sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones (and senior Darius Miller), Calipari morphed them into one of the most dominant national title teams of the past 20 years -- and easily the most dominant in the one-and-done era.

That was a special talent haul, one that can’t easily be duplicated. But Calipari remains on a roll: He landed the No. 1 class in the country in 2011, the No. 1 class in the country in 2010, and the No. 1 class in the country in 2009, when John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe paved the way.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Muhammad
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesShabazz Muhammad appears eager to help with UCLA's desperately needed image repair.
At this point, you can write it in ink each and every spring: Calipari will have the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, or something very close to it. As such, it wasn’t even remotely surprising to see the top player in the country, Noel, commit to the Wildcats on Wednesday night. By the time Noel revealed his choice on the ESPNU set -- with the added flair of the UK logo shaved into the back of his now-famous high-top fade -- much of the social media world and those who follow such things were convinced the choice was Georgetown.

Silly people. Did you really think Coach Cal was going to go 0-for-2 tonight? Come on now.

Calipari was already off to a great start on the recruiting trail this year -- top–20 players Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress signed on last fall -- but he was still missing the elite, top-five talent that has become a regular fixture in his classes since his days at Memphis. The search is over.

Noel’s commitment is not only crucial in a vacuum -- he is a massive and athletic center who specializes in dominant interior shot-blocking -- but it rounds out UK’s on-court balance, too. Noel will anchor the post. Goodwin and Poythress will star on the wings. Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer, a top–20 recruit who barely cracked the rotation in 2012 (as good an indication of the Wildcats’ talent as any), will take on a much larger role. And NC State transfer Ryan Harrow, the No. 10-ranked point guard in the Class of 2010 who left the Wolfpack after Sidney Lowe’s firing last season, will take over the all-important on-ball role.

Noel’s proclivity for swats will immediately invite comparison to the departing Davis, and Noel may well be a better shot-blocker than the Unibrowed One. But beyond that, the comparisons may be a little too eager. Davis was a physical freak who gained his physicality late in his high school career, when he sprouted 8 inches but somehow maintained his guard skills and agility. He was transcendent on both ends of the court, almost from Day 1.

By contrast, Noel is a lifelong big man, one whose offensive game remains very raw. (Though he shares at least this much with Davis: In a world full of 6-foot–10 prospects determined to play small forward, Noel is more than content to play as close to the rim as possible.) Likewise, for as promising as Poythress and Goodwin are, it’s clear there is no Kidd-Gilchrist -- whose combination of NBA talent and selflessness set the tone for UK’s special 2012 season -- to be found here, at least as far as we can tell right now.

Not that Kentucky fans will complain. Just a week after the program’s eighth national title, UK fans just watched live as the top recruit in the country committed to Big Blue Nation. A repeat of 2012’s dominance is too much to ask. But with another batch of talent arriving in Lexington this summer, Calipari’s unique ability to transform disparate freshmen into coherent, disciplined teams and a wide-open 2012–13 landscape, a repeat national title run is hardly out of the question.

At least one thing is clear: With Noel on board, the state of Big Blue Nation remains strong. And very, very talented.

It’s true: Life is good in Lexington.

In fact, it only seems to get better.
NEW ORLEANS -- How did the Kentucky Wildcats just win the 2012 national title?

"We were the best team this season," coach John Calipari said.

"They were playing with pros," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "That didn't hurt, either."

Simple enough, right? Assemble the best freshman class in the country -- including a star center, Anthony Davis, that changes the game in ways both literal and metaphysical. Get Terrence Jones to decide to eschew a pre-lockout NBA draft and come back for his sophomore season. Keep senior Darius Miller around for leadership and savvy. A few months later, win the national title.

On Monday night, Kentucky made that process look remarkably easy in its 67-59 win over Kansas. It is this team's unique genius that the most difficult accomplishment in college basketball, and one of the most difficult in sports -- win six do-or-die games in a row -- can, once accomplished, seem downright rote.

Kentucky was the best team. It had the best players. Of course it won. Duh.

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Anthony Davis
Chris Steppig/US PRESSWIREKentucky's Anthony Davis tied a championship game record with six blocked shots.
But that explanation is not sufficient. There's more to it than simply talent.

How did the Wildcats storm the NCAA tournament with a brand of dominance not seen since the 2009 North Carolina Tar Heels, and rarely seen before? How did they end that run by snuffing out an experienced, tough-as-nails Kansas squad, one led by a top-five pick and one of the best coaches in the country? How did Calipari's team go from "wow, these guys look talented" to "NCAA champions" in five short months? Here's how:

Dominant interior defense.

This is no surprise, of course: All season long, the college basketball world has marveled at Davis' shot-blocking and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's defensive will, and the way this team has made the typically simple act of scoring in the paint a feat akin to a 30-foot 3-point shot. Kentucky opponents ranked last in the country in two-point field goal percentage and overall effective field goal percentage this season.

This ability was rarely more obvious than on Monday night. Davis and Co. held Kansas to 17-of-51 (just 33.3 percent) inside the arc. Robinson and frontcourt mate Jeff Withey combined to go 8-of-25 from the field, all of which were two-point attempts. Davis' six blocks (and Jones' two) had much to do with this, of course.

But it goes far beyond sheer blocks. On Monday night, it was attributable to Davis' sheer presence -- the way he obviously and subtly affects his opponents' psyche with the knowledge that he's always around, somewhere close, waiting to send their shot the other way.

It stemmed from Davis' freakish mix of length, athleticism and agility; we've never seen a player so good at challenging more than one shot on any given possession, and few who can leave their man to contest a penetrating guard or a post move, but still recover quickly enough to grab rebounds and stop second chances. Davis was always hovering near Robinson Monday night, always ready to leap over and challenge the opposite post, while still able to grab 16 rebounds, 12 of them defensive.

And Jones was great in his own right Monday night -- and all season -- too. Charged with battling Robinson for post position, he rarely allowed KU's star to catch the ball cleanly near the rim. Instead, as Kansas swung the ball around the perimeter, Jones shifted with Robinson, moving his body to either side to prevent the post entry and disallow Robinson from sealing him over the top.

It was a clinical post defense performance. Robinson felt its effects -- and Davis' presence, and the sheer combined strength and speed Kentucky has used to dominate opponents around the rim all season -- in a Nov. 15 loss in Madison Square Garden. And he felt it again in the national championship game.

Incredibly balanced, efficient offense.

For all the talk of this defense (and it has dominated the Kentucky discussion for much of the year), the Wildcats' best trait for most of the 2012 season -- particularly during its undefeated SEC regular-season blitzkrieg -- was its offense. Hello, Monday's first half; goodbye, Kansas Jayhawks.

In Monday's first half, Kentucky scored 41 points on 16-of-30 shooting, including 3-of-7 from beyond the arc. It bumrushed the Jayhawks in a variety of ways, both in slower half-court sets and fast-break opportunities. Doron Lamb took the lead in the first half as he did throughout the game, scoring 22 points on 7-for-12 from the field, 3-of-6 from beyond the arc and 5-of-6 from the free throw line. When Kansas' defense shaped up in the second half and held Kentucky to just 26 points, Lamb's 10, including two key back-to-back killer 3s to stave off an even earlier Jayhawks push, were absolutely crucial.

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Doron Lamb
Richard Mackson/US PRESSWIREDoron Lamb hit two crucial 3s for Kentucky to stave off a KU run.
But the Wildcats were balanced in their early breakout, too: Jones had six points, Kidd-Gilchrist 11, Teague nine, Miller three and Davis zero. (You don't need to score when you dominate every other facet of the game like Davis did.)

All of which was emblematic of the Wildcats' offensive style this season. As Calipari was fond of touting, no UK player averaged more than 11 shots per game this season. Their usage rates, per KenPom.com, were as follows (in order of highest to lowest):

Terrence Jones: 22.6 percent
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist: 21.7 percent
Marquis Teague: 21.1 percent
Anthony Davis: 19.1 percent
Darius Miller: 18.9 percent
Doron Lamb: 18.1 percent

That is the utter definition of balance, and it's precisely what made this team so good: There was no one option opposing teams could lock in on and stop at all costs, no "if they don't do this, they'll lose" quality available to scouts and assistant coaches. If you stop Davis -- if he shoots 1-for-10 -- well, big whoop. You still had to guard Teague on ball screens, Lamb on off-ball screens (on curls and fades and every manner of creative methods to get easy open shots), Jones in the low block and on the offensive glass, Kidd-Gilchrist in penetration and on the fast break, Miller in the mid-range. There was no way you could do all of it all the time, for a full 40 minutes.

If the Wildcats played well, they would beat you. Now that I think about it, that part really is sort of simple.

The unique nature of this once-in-a-generation group.

Hard-nosed interior defense. Offensive balance between six remarkable, multifaceted talents. These are the two primary qualities the Wildcats brought to the floor for nearly all of 2011-12, and they're why Big Blue Nation got to celebrate the program's eighth national title Monday night. (And Tuesday morning. And probably Tuesday night. And Wednesday. And Thursday ...)

Getting to this point -- to get to the national title, to create this remarkable team -- wasn't merely a matter of recruiting this talent and letting it go do their thing. And voila! National title! That's not how it works. Calipari had to do his finest coaching job of all-time, too. He had to meld these players together into that all-hands-on-deck offensive attack, had to get them to defend every possession like it was their last, and he had to embark on a near-constant process of adjustment and acclimatization.

There are plenty of examples of this in the 2011-12 season, but perhaps the most noteworthy is how much Calipari changed the pace of the Wildcats' attack in SEC play. Kentucky averaged 70.7 possessions per game in nonconference play. This was vintage Cal, vintage Kentucky: Uptempo, utilizing the dribble-drive motion offense, overwhelming opponents with sheer talent until they finally were forced to relent.

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Marquis Teague
Richard Mackson/US PRESSWIREAs the season progressed, freshman point guard Marquis Teague began to find more control.
But Teague struggled. He was prone to turnovers and forced shots; he was trying to do too much, to be the all-everything point guard he was in high school, when he was the No. 1-ranked player at his position in his recruiting class. So Calipari slowed the Wildcats down. In 16 SEC games, they averaged just 62.6 possessions. The slower pace made the game easier for Teague. He rushed less, controlled more. As a result, his assist-to-turnover ratio skyrocketed. Meanwhile, Kentucky's best defensive trait -- that inside rim-protecting defense -- was allowed to establish itself, as opponents found themselves stuck playing UK in a halfcourt game.

And so it was that the Wildcats were able to enter the tournament as a team capable of playing fast or slow, on the break or in the fray, with a freshman point guard that calmly and coolly worked the Wildcats away from two sets of upset-minded, turnover-forcing guard corps at Louisville and Kansas. Those teams made their late runs. The tension built. But Teague, a world away from November and December, was ready.

These Wildcats won't be easily replicated. There are few players in the world like Davis, who grew to become the nation's most dominant player years after most top prep stars have already been groomed and coddled beyond recognition. There are few top-5 picks like Kidd-Gilchrist, as acutely aware of his strengths and weaknesses -- and as willing to play within the game, to do whatever it takes to win -- as any elite star we've seen in decades. There are few players like Jones, the sophomore big enough to play power forward but skilled enough to plug holes on the perimeter as well.

These players, and their teammates, arrived at this season with both tangible and intangible qualities that primed them for success. Calipari had to find them, first and foremost. But he also had to mold them. They had to trust him, too.

And their willingness to do all of the above -- their special qualities and complementary abilities and sincere care for more than draft hype and touches, but for more lasting glory -- transcended any of the easy labels foist upon them by the outside world.

"What I wanted them to show was that we were not just a talented team," Calipari said, just minutes after cutting down the nets in honor of his first national championship. "We were a defensive team, and we were a team that shared the ball.

"I wanted that. I told them I wanted this to be one for the ages. Go out there and show everyone what kind of team you are, even though we were young. It doesn't matter how young you are. It's how you play together."

That will be the lasting lesson of the 2012 national champion Kentucky Wildcats: Youth only means so much. Talent, too. Greatness requires so much more.

This team had all of it, everything it takes on offense and defense and in the locker room and on the sideline. On Monday night, they made sure we'd remember that more than anything else. And so we will.

Or, at least, we should. Because winning a national title like this team just won a national title is never -- despite appearances to the contrary -- as simple as it looks.

NEW ORLEANS -- Doron Lamb made quite an impression on John Calipari -- in August.

“He’s our best basketball player,’’ Calipari said on Aug. 8 to ESPN.com.

“[Doron] can take the pressure off those freshmen so they don’t have to be anyone else but themselves.’’

Who knew that Lamb would be the most productive player in the national title game.

Lamb wasn’t the most dominant. That honor went to national player of the year Anthony Davis, who was able to finish off Kansas with 16 rebounds, six blocks and five assists in Kentucky’s 67-59 national championship win Monday night at the Superdome.

Lamb was the most offensive of any player wearing white Monday night.

He finished with 22 points, making three 3s and becoming the type of player who wins titles -- the one who is left open and seems to be the least discussed during all the pregame talk.

“You saw it,’’ said Calipari Monday night. “At shootaround he was unbelievable. I told him and the team that he was going to have 25, you watch. And he went about it the right way and prepared to play great and he did.’’

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Doron Lamb
Mark Cornelison/Getty ImagesDoron Lamb hit three 3-pointers on his way to a game-high 22 points in the national title game.
Kansas couldn’t find Lamb, especially in the first half.

“He played excellent,’’ Davis said. “He shot the ball well, pushed it in transition and didn’t get rattled. He didn’t get outmuscled.’’

Lamb helped extend the Wildcats’ lead into double figures fast.

“It feels great,’’ said Lamb of the title and his performance. “I told coach Cal at shootaround that I would have a great game. I had to turn out a big game and I made a ton of shots so I’m happy for my team. I’m happy for my teammates and I’m happy for myself.’’

Lamb said earlier this weekend that he spent a recruiting Midnight Madness in Lawrence but ultimately chose Kentucky over Kansas. Lamb is from Queens so he would have been a major hit for a New York-area school had he decided to stay home. But as soon as he went to Oak Hill Academy (Va.) he was national.

And, of course, by going to Kentucky he knew he gave up the chance to be a star.

He had his moments with Kentucky, scoring 32 points in a win over Winthrop last year. He had a few 26-point games earlier this season. But Lamb was never a primary option.

Davis was the focal point. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was the drive on this team, always ready to make a play. Marquis Teague was the point. Terrence Jones was a matchup slasher and Darius Miller was a glue guy who could change the tone of the game.

But Lamb was always lurking as the Wildcats’ top shooter.

He saved his best for last.

Who knows if this means he’ll go to the NBA draft. He shouldn’t bolt when he has the chance to be a front-line star next season. He deserves his turn to be the focus on the perimeter.

“When I first got here, all they talked about was [title] No. 8 and now I’m sure it’s going crazy,’’ Lamb said. “I just had to make shots and be aggressive on offense.’’

Lamb seized the opportunity. That’s all anybody could ask and now he has a lifetime memory for himself and for Kentucky.

Video: Kentucky's Terrence Jones

April, 3, 2012
4/03/12
2:03
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Andy Katz talks with Kentucky's Terrence Jones following the Wildcats win over Kansas in national championship game.
John Calipari and Bill SelfUS PresswireBill Self (left) and John Calipari are both good at getting their players to play as one unit.
NEW ORLEANS -- Kentucky and Kansas are the two winningest programs in college basketball.

They are also two of the most similar, at least since John Calipari and Bill Self took over at the respective schools.

They have competed against each other for high-level recruits. Yes, believe it or not, Calipari isn’t the only one who seeks out players who are in college for one season. Self does it too.

“If your final schools are Kentucky and Kansas then that young man should be a very good player,’’ Calipari said.

“We’ve both had our fair share of good players and lottery picks,’’ Self said. “They’ve done the best job in recruiting in the country as far as a roster of freshmen and sophomores. They have by far the most talent, far away since he’s been there.’’

Self and Calipari recruited Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Kyle Wiltjer.

In previous years, Marcus and Markieff Morris were wanted by both coaches. The same is true for Xavier Henry.

“They both like athletic, fast guys who can run,’’ Robinson said.

Self and Calipari competed for the national title in 2008 when Calipari was coaching Memphis. Self won.

They are both incredibly competitive. Yet they are friendly rivals.

They want the best players, regardless of whether they are going to stay for one or four seasons.

They seek out similar talent: players who are going to defend, aren’t going to wilt one bit and must be able to check the ego at the door. Both coaches have succeeded at massaging the talent into one cohesive unit.

“Bill Self looks at his team and creates roles for his players,’’ Calipari said. “He gets guys to play their roles. He uses a lot of pick-and-rolls and they defend. His teams play hard and he essentially has a totally new team."

“Everybody talks about my team being new, but he lost his freshman class,’’ said Calipari, referring to freshmen Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor being ineligible this season. “Everybody thought they’d be an NIT team and they’re not in the NIT, he’s in the final game.’’

Self said the two coaches are similar in their philosophy of coaching. Of course, he put in that Calipari always has “guys,’’ a term used to essentially describe the immense talent Calipari has amassed.

“We want to recruit the best players in the country, and we go against Duke, Carolina and Michigan State and Texas, but at some point, you’re going to have to beat Kentucky,’’ Self said. “He’s much more animated than I am on the sidelines. But we both get after our guys.’’

They win under intense pressure and don’t mind all the attention that comes with it.

There are programs that feel pressure, some more than others. Winning at places like North Carolina, Indiana and UCLA is expected, and when it doesn’t happen, as has occurred in the past decade for all those schools, the pressure increases. Yet the scrutiny frazzles neither Self nor Calipari.

And their teams play in two of the most hallowed halls in the game: Phog Allen Fieldhouse and Rupp Arena. The fan bases travel as well as any in the country. They expect success. And both coaches have delivered.

Now they’ve got a chance to send their faithful home with a national championship, either Self’s second -- and second against Calipari -- or Calipari’s first.


NEW ORLEANS -- Back in October, we said we'd get a colossal Final Four. When the brackets were released, we forecast a chalky March. When the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight finished in thrilling fashion and the final weekend of the NCAA tournament's marquee event took shape, we knew, after two years of unexpected mid-major incursion, we'd get back to the blueblood basics on the grand Superdome stage.

We were right.

And even so, whether four months or four weeks or four days ago, it was difficult to fathom the sheer titanic size of Monday night's matchup. Because they don't get much bigger than this.

It is Kentucky and Kansas, the two winningest programs in the history of the sport, the place where the game was invented versus the place that has obsessed over it each and every day since. It is Anthony Davis versus Thomas Robinson, the nation's consensus national player of the year and the player who most closely challenged him for those honors all season. It is a rematch -- a rare national title rematch after two such games in the Final Four -- of a mid-November Kentucky win at Madison Square Garden. It is John Calipari and Bill Self -- the coach whose 2008 Memphis team frittered away a national title in the final two minutes getting a redemptive crack at the program and coach who beat him. And it is, of course, the Superdome, an epic setting with a knack for producing fittingly monumental games.

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Anthony Davis
Richard Mackson/US PRESSWIREAnthony Davis, who won multiple awards as the nation's top player, put on a show Saturday.
So, now that we know what to look forward to -- and the process of evaluation, analysis and prediction begins in earnest -- let's take a first look at what (we hope, anyway) will be a national championship game every bit as big as the programs, storylines and atmosphere that inhabit it.

This is Kentucky's title to win. Kansas was asked about its first meeting with the Wildcats (a 75-65 Kentucky win) more than few times here Saturday night. It would be foolish to pay too much attention to that game for obvious reasons: It came on Nov. 15, nearly five months ago; it was just the second game of the season; both teams were still in the larvae stage, and so on. But it is instructive in at least one way: Nov. 15 was the date we all realized just how insanely talented this Kentucky team is, how high its ceiling was, how much sheer athletic ability it brought to the floor. Kansas' Thomas Robinson was everything we imagined he would be, but even one of the nation's most gifted frontcourt players was dwarfed and swarmed by Anthony Davis -- who had seven blocks and 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting (he's always been this good) -- Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the rest.

Jeff Withey had yet to emerge for Kansas, which has made this team an entirely different beast. Self's guidance since has been magnificent. Kansas of April 1 barely resembles Kansas of Nov. 15. All of that is true. But the point remains: Kentucky has looked like a national title contender since it dropped the Jayhawks in November, and it has only gotten better since. Marquis Teague has gone from too eager and turnover-prone to the cool hand that calmly guided Kentucky past a tricky Louisville team Saturday night. Darius Miller has emerged as a glue guy, leader and sixth-man extraordinaire. Kidd-Gilchrist has played himself into the top three of the NBA draft thanks to his rare combination of toughness, talent and willingness defending. Terrence Jones is a less moody, more driven version of himself, less likely to pout, more likely to seek and destroy.

If you haven't figured it out by now, know this: This is not your typical freshman-filled, one-and-done team. This is a group with no ego. Its two best players (Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist) rank sixth and seventh on the team in shot percentage (the percentage of available shots they attempt). On the whole, Calipari has molded this once-in-a-decade (if that!) combination of talent and unselfishness into a national championship steamroller.

The names on these teams' jerseys suggest there is no true underdog here, but that will not be the case on Monday. Kentucky is too good to be anything other than the overwhelming favorite. It's just too good.

Which doesn't mean Kansas' cause is hopeless. Far from it, of course. Yes, Kentucky inhabits a different stratosphere, but down here on Earth, the Jayhawks happen to be a very good basketball team. They entered Saturday's Final Four as the No. 4 team in the nation in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, with a defense ranked No. 4 in efficiency and an offense ranked No. 16. They were 16-2 in the Big 12, 32-6 overall, they have a top-five draft pick of their own in Robinson, a talented senior point guard in Tyshawn Taylor, and a 7-foot shot-blocking center of their own in Jeff Withey. In fact, Withey's block percentage -- he had seven more against Ohio State and Jared Sullinger on Saturday night -- is 15.1 percent, the highest in the nation. Anthony Davis' 13.95 percent actually ranks No. 3.

In so far as anyone can match up with Kentucky -- and really, no one can -- Self's team actually matches up pretty well. Withey isn't nearly as mobile as Davis (obviously), and it's hard to figure who will guard Kidd-Gilchrist or how a good-but-not-great offense will find its buckets against a still very good Kentucky defense. But in terms of sheer strength-on-strength matchups -- Kentucky's strength is offense, Kansas' defense -- Self's team isn't that far off the mark.

Especially if it plays two halves of defense. It is somewhat miraculous that this team has a chance to win the national championship, once you consider how poorly it has played in the first half of its past four NCAA tournament games. In wins over Ohio State, North Carolina, NC State and Purdue, the Jayhawks have allowed an average of 37.5 points in the first half and just 24 points in second halves. Their opponents' shooting percentages plummet after the locker room visit: Total field goal percentage drops from 49.1 to 24.2, and opponents' 3-point percentage drops from 51.2 to 18.4.

[+] EnlargeKansas' Elijah Johnson
Chris Steppig/US PRESSWIREElijah Johnson and Kansas outscored Ohio State 13-7 in the final five minutes.
The glass-half-empty pessimist would be inclined to wonder why Kansas doesn't muster that stifling defense all the time. But give the Jayhawks credit: They turn it on late.

Kansas outscored Ohio State 13-7 in the final five minutes Saturday; the Buckeyes shot 2-for-10 during this stretch. It was the fifth straight game that a Kansas opponent shot worse than 30 percent in the final five minutes, including 0-for-7 by North Carolina in the regional final. That's a remarkable quality -- the ability to get better and better as the game goes along -- and it will be one the Jayhawks need to expand on to give themselves a chance to take home a title Monday night.

"Kentucky had to play for 40 minutes today, too," Self said after his team's win Saturday. "And the thing about it is they're terrific. Our second-half performance, if we could play both halves that way, [Kentucky] is still good enough to [for us] to get beat."

The hype says T-Rob versus the Brow. The matchups say otherwise. As much as we would love to see Davis and Robinson match up on the low block time after time -- a vintage clash for the ages in the Superdome, just turn down the lights and shut up and watch -- that dream (which is currently playing in my head, and it's glorious) is probably no more than that. The two national player of the year candidates will surely meet at the rim more than once Monday. They'll see plenty of each other, no doubt. But the way Kansas and Kentucky are composed, the Jayhawks almost certainly have to put Withey on Davis or use that triangle-and-two defense Self has often busted out to confuse opposing offenses in the tournament. Leaving Withey to guard Terrence Jones, who could pull the 7-footer out to the perimeter, seems like an unwise idea.

Good news for Tyshawn Taylor. Kentucky doesn't force many turnovers. As of this writing, the Wildcats rank No. 297 in the nation in opponents' turnover rate, which is just 17.7 percent. That's been the fundamental flaw in Taylor's game all of his career, and throughout the tournament, and it was part of the reason he struggled so mightily against Aaron Craft and Ohio State on Saturday. Kentucky's defense holds back its foes in other ways -- namely Davis' shot blocking, great shot defense all over the court and a unique ability to avoid putting opponents on the free throw line.

Can Kansas' offense break down the Wildcats' defense? It's hard to imagine. But at least Taylor won't have to worry about Craftian levels of stress Monday night. That must be a relief.

No one will be distracted by Bourbon Street now. There is a tendency to assume that this insane city bleeds into focus and preparation, that it makes it more difficult for the coaches to control their players, keep them in line and keep them ready to play. That doesn't seem to be the case. Kansas' players were spotted strolling Bourbon Street on Wednesday night, and that didn't change their ability to lock down on defense Saturday. Kentucky's players, both old and young, seem entirely unwilling to focus on anything else but the basketball. They are preternaturally calm.

And as for Self, he was asked about this just after the game Saturday. His strategy? Lock his players away.

"I told them Bourbon Street was in the locker room tonight," Self said. "That's as close as they're going to get to it. ... Guys will go straight to their room. We don't even let them go to the lobby. Unless they got some sheets they can tie together and drop them from the 14th floor, they're not going anywhere tonight."

It seems slightly draconian, but if it's the price KU's players have to pay to give us the best possible game Monday night, we're glad they're (probably begrudgingly) willing to take it.

After all, this game has all the makings of an epic -- the programs, the history, the coaches, the talent. All it needs is a Kansas team up to the task.


NEW ORLEANS -- A quick look at Kentucky’s 69-61 victory over Louisville in Saturday's first national semifinal.

Overview: The commonwealth of Kentucky’s Game for the Ages boiled down to the simplest principle in sport -- talent wins.

Louisville gave the archrival Wildcats all they could handle, coming back time and again from double-digit deficits, but guts and spunk simply don’t overrun talent.

And Kentucky has it in droves, thanks in large part to the lanky body that is Anthony Davis.

The national player of the year was simply too much for the Cardinals to handle, scoring 18 points and denying who knows how many for Louisville.

Never a good offensive team this season, Louisville kept it close by rebounding its misses to the tune of a 19-6 edge on the offensive glass, but in the end Kentucky was too good, claiming state bragging rights that will linger among generations and families for years.

Turning point: After Peyton Siva hit a 3 to tie the game 49-49 and ignite the already-well-ignited Mercedes-Benz Superdome crowd with just over nine minutes to play, the Cardinals failed to convert another field goal for more than six minutes.

Louisville couldn’t get a good shot -- some of which was self-induced, but mostly thanks to the always-imposing presence of Davis.

Kentucky nudged its way to a 55-51 lead and then, with 5:07 left, Marquis Teague flipped a pass to senior Darius Miller in transition. The senior swished the 3-point dagger.

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Anthony Davis
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesAnthony Davis scored 18 points to go with 14 rebounds and 5 blocks against Louisville.
Key stat: The Wildcats shot 57 percent from the floor, putting together a terrific offensive night against a team that ranked No. 1 in defensive efficiency.

Key player: Davis seems like a good pick. Seriously, he is an athletic freak in the best sense of the word and was absolutely everywhere for Kentucky. He finished with 18 points, 14 rebounds, 5 blocks, 2 assists and a steal. And he played 39 minutes.

Unfortunately the box score does not take into account altered or influenced shots -- because Davis might have set an NCAA record there.

If Louisville got inside, the Cardinals thought twice about shooting -- and if they dared to take a shot, they sent up such high-arcing floaters they nearly reached the Superdome roof.

Davis was spectacular on a night when two of his teammates, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, were average, adding even more to the crucial impact the freshman had on the game.

Miscellaneous: Kentucky has won 40 consecutive games when leading at the half, dating back to Feb. 1, 2011, against Ole Miss. … A Louisville cheerleader taken out by Jones returned in the second half. Word is she had four stitches during the break.

What’s next: Kentucky, hands down the best team in the country, looks to claim its first title since 1998 on Monday night against Kansas.
NEW ORLEANS - A few quick bulleted thoughts on the first half of our first Final Four matchup:

  • Louisville should be thrilled it trails by only seven. The Cardinals are, as expected, outclassed at every position. Nothing is coming easy on the offensive end -- every shot is challenged, every drive to the rim feels hopeless, every turnover feels like a death knell. Louisville shot 12-of-32 from the field, and scored just .77 points per possession, in the first half. Kentucky, on the other hand, shot 15-of-25. Yet the Cardinals closed the gap late in the second half, and remain very much in this game.
  • How? Turnovers, mostly. The Wildcats have coughed the ball up eight times, several of which have led to Russ Smith-piloted run-outs and fast-break buckets, exactly the thing Louisville needs to stay in this tilted talent mismatch. But Kentucky has, with the exception of the turnovers, been pretty much peerless on the offensive end. A few more made 3s (they're 1-of-5) and fewer turnovers, and this thing isn't close. Louisville's defense is very good, but the Wildcats are mostly getting what they want on the offensive end.
  • [+] EnlargeTerrence Jones
    Bob Donnan/US PresswireKentucky's Terrence Jones (3) dunks over Louisville's Jared Swopshire during the first half.

  • It also helped Louisville that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky's do-it-all small forward, left the game with his second foul with just under 14 minutes to play. The charge call that landed him his second foul was slightly questionable (shocker, I know), but either way, Kentucky managed to maintain its hold on the game without MKG on the floor. That's good news, obviously.
  • Gorgui Dieng finished the first half with a block and a huge dunk on a Louisville fast break, and his final counting numbers (5 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks) were solid, but he struggled for much of the half. He missed a wide-open dunk, he turned the ball over three times and he finished 2-of-7 from the field. He'll have to be more sure-handed in the paint, because Louisville's main line of attack -- rushing Peyton Siva and Smith to the rim, then dishing to a big man and hoping for the best -- requires Dieng to finish clinically on the block. He hasn't thus far.
  • What John Calipari is probably telling his team at the half: Slow down, take your time on offense, but don't be casual. "Be fast, but don't hurry," is a classic John Woodenism, and it applies here. Kentucky is too much for the Cardinals to handle on both ends. As long as Kentucky controls the game, limits turnovers and gets good looks on offense, the Wildcats will win. It's really pretty simple.
  • What Rick Pitino is probably telling his team at the half: Get into these guys. Louisville has to turn Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb over to stay in this thing, because Kentucky is too good defensively to allow buckets to this so-so offense in a straight half-court matchup situation. The Cardinals could use some 3s in the second half, but they also need to keep pushing for interior buckets from Chane Behanan and Dieng. Behanan, in particular, can score against Terrence Jones; he just needs the space and time to create his own look in the post. The Cardinals should be pretty happy they're not trailing by a larger deficit here, but they still have much to improve if they plan on pulling off this unlikely upset.
NEW ORLEANS -- Kentucky freshman center Anthony Davis was clearly in pain when he went crashing to the floor early in the second half against Baylor on Sunday.

The consensus national player of the year didn't have the same gait afterward, and was deemed to have a bruise. Davis went in the game, went out, and then came back again.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Davis
Richard Mackson/US PresswireAnthony Davis is feeling better after being banged up in Kentucky's win against Baylor.
But he didn’t want to stop playing, and finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks in 32 minutes. He didn’t leave until a bloody lip with 33 seconds left forced him to come out of the game with Kentucky ahead by double figures.

Davis publicly said he was fine after the game, but that’s not the whole story.

“I’m not going to lie,’’ he said Thursday at the Superdome. “I felt sore. It was tight, and I really couldn’t move it. It was just all the adrenaline that kept me going during the game. It started hurting after the game.’’

Davis said that he got treatment immediately Monday, an off day for UK. He needed to make sure the knee was iced up, and that he was rested and relaxed. Davis said during Tuesday’s practice, all he could do was ride a bike.

But by Wednesday he was out on the court running and competing in a full practice.

“He’s been great, but it was funny when I walked over, he said he hit knees, and I said, 'Come on mama's boy, come on,' said Kentucky coach John Calipari. "He's the greatest."

With Davis’ health no longer an issue, Kentucky is the heavy favorite here in New Orleans. But the Wildcats, even the freshmen, are used to the attention and the pressure.

“We’ve been the favorite the whole year,’’ said sophomore guard Doron Lamb. “Everybody wants to win every game. There is really no pressure on us. We are used to this. Everybody is expecting us to win the whole thing. We have to go out there and prove to the world that we are one of the best teams in the country.’’

Sophomore Terrence Jones dismissed the notion that the Cats are under any more pressure than anyone else.

“It’s the Final Four, there is pressure enough,’’ Jones said. “With being the No. 1 team, having the target on our back that we have had all year, it just adds enough pressure as it is.’’

The players diffused any chatter that there is added significance in playing Louisville to get to the national title. They fully expect that the Wildcats will have to defend the 3-point shot, deal with UL’s ball pressure, and ensure they are fundamentally sound with the basketball.

“I know how much this means to me, and how much this means to the team,’’ said Jones of simply playing in the Final Four. “The Final Four is the most important thing.’’

Davis is from Chicago, but he has started to grasp the nature of the rivalry between the Commonwealth's fans. Miller wasn’t aware of the infamous fight at a dialysis center, but wasn’t surprised.

“Fans are crazy,’’ Davis said. “They told us last night that some Kentucky and Louisville fans got into a fight on Bourbon Street. The fans really care about their sports and will do anything to say their school is a better school. That’s where we come in. We try to downplay it.

"It’s a big game for the fans and the state of Kentucky, the whole rivalry, but we look at it as another game. That’s how you have to look at it, but you need to let the fans and the Kentucky program and Louisville program take pride in it.’’

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