by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
There promises to be enough juicy storylines floating around Houston this week to write a book on each of your 2011 Final Four participants. But I have a blog and four days between now and when the madness resumes. Four days, four teams… sounds kind of perfect. Today’s team: Kentucky Wilcats.
Final Four History: 1942, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1966, 1975, 1978, 1984, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998
Quote of the Tournament: “You put that ‘Kentucky’ on front and it changes things … buildings are a little fuller. The kids are playing harder, jumping higher, making more shots than they normally make and you better be ready to ball. Coming to Kentucky is a man’s decision. You can’t be a boy here.’’ — John Calipari on the differences between playing at Kentucky vs other schools.
|G-Brandon Knight||G-Doron Lamb|
Why They Are Here: Kentucky’s first Final Four appearance in 13 years is probably its most unexpected. Optimism was high at the start of the season because of the standard John Calipari blue chip recruiting class. Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb might not have been as highly touted as the one-and-dones they were replacing, but if Kentucky was to make another deep tournament run, it would be on the freshmen’s shoulders. But in a refreshing throwback to a day when players stayed in school for four seasons, learned something along the way, and peaked in their junior-senior campaign, it has been the Wildcat veterans who are responsible for carrying John Calipari to his first — cough — third Final Four appearance as a head coach.
Even if Kentucky is technically in this position thanks to the heroics of Brandon Knight, who has saved Big Blue Nation with game-winning buckets against Princeton and Ohio State and a 30-point outburst against West Virginia in between, anyone who’s watched this team’s four tournament games knows the Wildcats would not have made it out of the first round without the upperclassmen. While Knight was held scoreless for the first 39 minutes against Princeton and Terrence Jones vanished, junior forward Darius Miller and senior big man Josh Harrelson were making the clutch plays. Harrelson went on to play Ohio State’s First-Team All-American Jared Sullinger to a draw in the Sweet 16, and junior DeAndre Liggins has embraced the role of shutdown perimeter defender. Each of the freshmen has had his moment in this tournament, but Kentucky is in its 14th national semifinal because of the vets.
They Will Win on Saturday Because: Kentucky has gotten away with Terrence Jones’ late-season swoon because other players, like Harrelson, Miller and Liggins, have stepped up. I’m not sure that can continue against a team as hot as Connecticut. Kentucky has a huge match-up edge, and will win, if Terrence Jones plays like the versatile double-double machine who was terrorizing the SEC in January-February. Kentucky needs to make every effort to get Jones comfortable and confident early in this game (without disturbing the rhythm of the other players, of course) because Connecticut has no answer for him. Jim Calhoun’s best chance to slow down a hot Jones might be Alex Oriakhi, but he needs his big man to contain the suddenly dangerous Harrelson. The job will most likely end up going to a mix of undersized forwards like Tyler Orlander, Roscoe Smith and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel who can compete with Jones’ quickness. But, if Jones avoids floating around the perimeter like he is prone to do, the freshman should abuse Connecticut on the offensive glass.
They Will Lose on Saturday Because: Kentucky’s depth (or lack of it) could be an issue. These are young legs, Calipari has clearly conditioned his team to play this way, and they will have had nearly a week of rest between Saturday and their previous game. So though it’s hard to ignore the fact that Calipari is essentially deploying a six-man rotation (Cal’s effective use of substitutions to keep everyone fresh in the Tournament has been pretty underrated), I’m not so concerned with the fatigue factor. If I’m a Kentucky fan, however, I am concerned with potential foul trouble in this game. This guy Kemba Walker (maybe you’ve heard of him?) tends to draw lots of fouls — he is averaging nine free-throw attempts per contest in Connecticut’s first four games. Kentucky isn’t equipped to handle foul trouble at any position, but a couple of quick perimeter hand checks on DeAndre Liggins or Brandon Knight would be devastating.
Watch out for: I don’t entirely agree with the comparisons many are making between the Kentucky seniors’ March performance and Brian Zoubek’s emergence for Duke last spring (for one Harrelson can easily clear a phonebook on his vertical jump), but Harrelson is impacting games the way Zoubek did during Duke’s title run last season. Harrelson is the only true center remaining in the field, so don’t be surprised if he continues to be the force he was in Kentucky’s run through the East Region. UConn’s Alex Oriakhi is a solid defender, but gives up about 30 pounds to the husky Harrelson. Jim Calhoun’s backup center Charles Okwandu (7-feet, 255 pounds), who’s been giving the Huskies solid minutes off the bench in the Tournament, might play a prominent role in this one if Harrelson begins to push Oriakhi around in the paint.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.