NEWARK, N.J. — Last August, Kentucky Coach John Calipari was well aware of the big question hanging over the 2010-11 season and, in a larger sense, his reliance on so-called one-and-done stars: Can a team so constructed advance to a Final Four and win a national championship when the NCAA Tournament presents more skilled and more experienced competitors each game?
Calipari publicly put a priority on finding the keys to getting a freshman-oriented team over the metaphorical hump and onto college basketball's grandest stage.
With UK facing Ohio State (the overall No. 1 seed in this year's NCAA Tournament) here Friday night, perhaps this season's biggest hump stands dead ahead.
When asked what he determined could nullify an equally talented opponent's greater experience, Calipari sat silent for a moment. A Mona Lisa smile appeared on his face.
"I don't know yet," he said Thursday. "We're still trying to figure it out."
Earlier this week, ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas scoffed at the conventional wisdom that suggests freshmen are no longer freshmen by March.
"Freshmen are freshmen more so this time of year because they've never been in an NCAA Tournament," he said. "We saw that when Kentucky played West Virginia last year."
Even with five first-round NBA Draft picks, Kentucky panicked when it could not solve West Virginia's 1-3-1 defense in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. Bilas contended that an older, more experienced team would better keep its composure while searching for answers.
Ohio State (34-2) boasts three players who have scored more than 1,400 points in their careers: William Buford (1,415), David Lighty (1,446) and Jon Diebler (1,520).
Although UK has no player with even 900 career points, freshman Terrence Jones refused to concede any ground to Ohio State.
"Well, right now, at this point of the season, I think everybody is experienced," he said. "They have two freshmen who do a lot of things for them, and we have three. I think it's pretty much even."
Of course, Ohio State's two freshmen are All-America big man Jared Sullinger and point guard Aaron Craft, the Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year.
Sullinger, who averages a double-double (17.1 points and 10.0 rebounds), sounded like a freshman when asked what concerns Kentucky presented the Buckeyes.
"What concerns us?" he said repeating the question. "We really don't have too many concerns about a team. Not really. We're confident right now, and we're playing good defense. ...
"If we're concerned about anything we're kind of concerned about how are we going to respond to a good Kentucky team that's going to be juiced up and ready to play basketball."
Diebler, one of four seniors or juniors in Ohio State's first seven, noted the Buckeyes' consistency.
"We haven't overlooked a team the whole year, and our record shows that we haven't," he said. "That's something we take pride in: playing the right way."
Ohio State players young and relatively old noted the difference its veterans can make.
"They talk to us, mess around with us, keep us loose," said Craft, whose emergence as a freshman point guard completed Ohio State. "A bunch of things I think people overlook. They're always that steady rock, that steady foundation, no matter what's going on."
Lighty, a fifth-year senior, also touched on an intangible.
"We just bring some sanity to our team," he said. "All the young guys running around, going crazy. We kind of keep them in check."
Noting the pats on the back that successful teams evoke, Lighty said, "all that means nothing in the long run."
Lighty described Sullinger as wise beyond his years.
"Being a freshman and not forcing things, letting the game come to him," Lighty said. "He plays beyond his years, and that's something that's special."
Kentucky spoke of playing Ohio State as it did in the second Vanderbilt game. Vandy center Festus Ezeli scored 22 points and grabbed 13 rebounds against mostly one-on-one defense, but the Commodores got off only 11 three-point shots, making three.
"We can't let them get off a whole bunch of threes," Jones said of the Buckeyes, who made 28 treys in two NCAA Tournament games. "... They shoot a better percentage than us, and I know we can shoot."
A plan to limit Ohio State's three-point shooting would seem to mean one-on-one defense on Sullinger."How would I feel?" he said, repeating a question about such a strategy. "I'd probably have a big smile on my face from ear to ear because I haven't gotten that in a long time."
As for whether freshmen are still freshmen in March, Sullinger said it depended on the freshman. Some are mature. Some "kind of get nervous," he said.
And which was Sullinger?
"We'll see tomorrow," he said. "See how I react."