Bledsoe comes out firing like Delk

Tip from coach tony leads freshman to 29 points, gives UK a dangerous new dimension

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 19, 2010 

NEW ORLEANS — Before his first NCAA Tournament game ever, Eric Bledsoe sought counsel from his own personal Yoda.

Tony Delk, star of Kentucky's 1996 NCAA champions and current UK coach in training, told the freshman from Alabama that the first tourney game is the hardest one.

"Because you don't know what might happen," Bledsoe said. "He said you're always nervous, but you've got to get it out of your system and, after that, it's easy."

If the NCAA Tournament gets any easier for Bledsoe, well, UK will have to immediately hang his jersey in Rupp Arena's rafters.

Here in the Big Easy, the 6-foot-1 freshman came out hotter than a Remoulade Sauce. Bledsoe drained nine of 11 shots, including 8-for-9 three pointers to score a career-high 29 points.

With Bledsoe leading the way, Kentucky looked every bit how a No. 1 seed and aspiring national champion should, blasting No. 16 East Tennessee State by a 100-71 score that wasn't, actually, that close.

One of the knocks on UK entering the Dance, of course, is the erratic nature of its outside shooting.

Bledsoe, in some ways, has been the poster person for that.

In the 14 games that started with the Arkansas contest in Rupp Arena and ended with Alabama in the first game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Bledsoe shot a horrid 9-for-46 from three-point range.

Yet, in addition to shooting one of the best deliberately missed free throws in college basketball history, Bledsoe heated up in the final two games in Nashville.

He came into the sparsely filled New Orleans Arena for Thursday night's game having made seven of his prior 12 three-point attempts.

Yet that was nothing compared to the long-range strafing he launched on ETSU.

UK was already up 29-14, when Bledsoe nuked any thoughts that the Cats were going to be challenged or upset as many favorites were on the first day of the 2010 NCAAs.

In a 3:14 stretch, No. 24 drained a trey from the right wing; he made a steal and took it in for a layup; he buried another trey from the right wing; then hit yet another three; and, finally, he cashed in the first of two free throws.

That was a personal 12-0 run for Bledsoe.

From that point forward, there was never any tension involved for the Kingdom of the Blue.

Just as impressively, Bledsoe came back after halftime and had a 3:13 stretch in which he scored 11 points.

"Coach told me to play defense," Bledsoe said of UK head man John Calipari, "and that when I play defense, it carries over to offense. So that's what I did."

Bledsoe's long-range marksmanship was the biggest part of a 15-for-33 effort from beyond the arc by UK.

Just what would it mean for Kentucky in its bid for an eighth NCAA title if the outside shots keep falling?

"We're pretty much unbeatable," answered UK big man DeMarcus Cousins.

Kentucky's overall performance certainly harkened back to the late 1990s, the modern golden era of deep NCAA tourney runs. Just as UK did back then to the San Jose States and Riders, the 2010 Cats turned their 1 vs. 16 matchup into an impressive platform of dynamic dunks, monster blocked shots and — thanks to Bledsoe — some dead-eye long-range shooting.

Said Calipari: "East Tennessee State, they hit a buzzsaw. Hopefully, we're this good. I'm not sure if we are, but we'll see if we can keep it going."

As for Bledsoe and his Yoda, maybe Delk settled the freshman down a little too well.

The eight treys Bledsoe drained Thursday night eclipsed the UK record of seven three-pointers in an NCAA Tournament game set in the 1996 national title contest by one Tony Delk.

In the Wildcats locker room after Thursday's beat down, someone asked Bledsoe whether he was going to give his counselor a hard time about that.

"I've already started," Bledsoe said. "Tony who?"

What did Delk have to say in reply?

Said Bledsoe: "He said I should have stopped at seven."

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