NEWARK, N.J. -- Three years after his abrupt departure from the Big Apple, Doron Lamb has finally come home.
Well, not quite -- we're across two rivers from the Queens neighborhood of Laurelton, where Lamb grew up. But the 6-foot-4 freshman guard for the University of Kentucky will be playing in front of family and friends when his Wildcats take on Ohio State in the NCAA regional semifinals on Friday night.
Exactly how many people are coming to cheer him on?
"I don't even know, my mom's handling that right now," Lamb said Thursday afternoon following his team's open practice at the Prudential Center. "I'm not even worried about tickets. ... I'm just looking forward to playing tomorrow."
Back in the summer of 2008, Lamb was a rising junior, and a rising star, at Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn. But before the next school year began, he elected to transfer to Oak Hill Academy in southern Virginia -- a powerhouse prep school that has helped produce such NBA stars as Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant.
"I went to Oak Hill just to focus on my schoolwork and just have a better basketball program and a great coach, and they pushed me very well," Lamb said. "Got my grades up, played against the best of the best."
Durant and current Duke star Nolan Smith were among the Oak Hill alumni who counseled Lamb on his decision to transfer to the school, located in Mouth of Wilson, Va., in the Appalachian Mountains on the border with North Carolina.
"Being at Oak Hill is like a mission really," Lamb said. "There's like cows and farms and all that stuff. There's nothing to do out there, just focus on basketball and schoolwork. That's why I went out there."
In his two years in Virginia, Lamb blossomed into a McDonald's High School All-American, and was recruited by many of the top programs in the country, including UConn, Kansas and West Virginia. But in the end, he decided to move about 300 miles northwest to the winningest program in the history of college basketball.
"I just wanted to come to Kentucky and just keep it going," Lamb said. "Playing great basketball, great program, great coaching staff."
Lamb is one of three freshmen starting for John Calipari and the No. 4-seeded Wildcats (27-8), who will play the Buckeyes (34-2) -- the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament -- on Friday at approximately 9:45 p.m.
The other two -- 6-foot-3 guard Brandon Knight and 6-foot-8 forward Terrence Jones -- have received more attention. Knight is the team's leading scorer (17.5 ppg, which led the nation among freshmen), hit the winning shot in the first round against Princeton and poured in 30 in the Cats' second-round win over West Virginia. And Jones is the team's second-leading scorer (16.5 ppg), its leading rebounder (8.9 rpg) and was named SEC Freshman of the Year.
But Lamb has been a key contributor in his own right. He's third on the team in scoring (12.6 ppg), shooting almost 50 percent from the field (49.7). And his 3-point shooting percentage (46.9) is tops in the Southeastern Conference, and ranks him 13th in the country.
Their coach lavished praise on the entire group of freshmen Thursday. "Each of these guys are playing as well as they have ever played in their career," Calipari said. "And that's all I can ask for as a coach."
Lamb has been streaky. He had a season-high 32 points against Winthrop on Dec. 22, and scored in double digits on 18 other occasions. Yet he also was held to single digits in six of the team's final nine regular-season games.
But Lamb bounced back with a team-high 19 points in Kentucky's SEC tournament opener against Ole Miss, and again led the team with 15 points in its semifinal win over Alabama, before injuring his left ankle near the end of the game.
And Lamb showed a lot of toughness by taking a painkilling injection in order to play in the SEC championship game win over Florida, even though he has a fear of needles. (Lamb got an assist from multiple teammates on that shot.)
Calipari has a theory on why Lamb struggled scoring late in the season.
"What you guys are missing is [Lamb's] really defending," Calipari said, according to the Kentucky Kernel on March 9. "For the first time in his life, he's using up a ton of energy defending. His offense is lacking a little bit, but not much. But he doesn't have the energy because he's really thinking, 'You know, I've got to guard somebody,' which is something we've been on him about."
Calipari will need big contributions Friday night, on both offense and defense, from all three of these freshmen to upset the Buckeyes, who feature the national freshman of the year, Jared Sullinger (17.1 ppg, 10.0 rpg), and are the best 3-point shooting team in the nation.
"I've watched a ton of Ohio State tape. There are times I watch the tape and I go, oh my goodness," Calipari said. "[But] we've gotten better too. I mean, we're playing as well as we've played all year right now. But, you know, it's funny in these situations -- everybody handles this different. And I think, with freshmen starting, and our veteran players not being as experienced, this is an interesting thing.
"An inexperienced team like mine, it is hard to predict how they will come out and do with the lights on."
Lamb has scored only 13 points combined in the team's first two NCAA tournament games. But he will be counted upon Friday night, in what could be a high-scoring affair -- both teams are in the top 32 in the country, each averaging above 75 points per game. Lamb said Thursday that after a lot of treatment, his ankle is healed -- "I'm 100 percent now" -- and that his family and friends won't be a distraction.
"I'm not gonna be worried about all my family coming in. I gotta play my game, play like I always do," Lamb said. "Just calm down, just let the game come to me, really -- that's the main goal. Let every shot come to me. If I've got an open shot, take it."
Why not? Three years after leaving New York, Doron Lamb is now one of the best shooters in college basketball.
And a big game (or two) here this weekend is the perfect homecoming script.