John Clay: Cats can go all the way

Wildcats have gone from NCAA outsider to favorite

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 29, 2011 

When Brandon Knight executed the drive-and-bank and Kentucky beat Princeton in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, John Calipari hopped on one of his Internet platforms and asked "Can we get one more?"

How about two more?

Kentucky can win this thing.

In fact, you can make a pretty fair case that Kentucky should win the thing when it travels to Houston for this weekend's Final Four, the 14th trip in the school's long and continuing glorious basketball history.

The number crunchers in Las Vegas have taken a fresh look at the remaining four and dubbed John Calipari's club the favorite.

After all, Connecticut is on a wonderful run, and there is Huskie hero Kemba Walker, but Jim Calhoun's club did finish in ninth place in the Big East, losing four of its last five regular-season games.

Meanwhile, VCU is the true Cinderella in Nikes, but the Rams did lose their four of their last five regular-season games. Butler has the professor coach in the amazing Brad Stevens, who looks like he could be Justin Bieber's older, and smarter, brother.

But Kentucky has the real Justin Bieber, or the Bieber look-alike in Jarrod Polson, the walk-on from West Jessamine who the team made sure was the first up the ladder to cut down the nets at the Prudential Center. Tells you a little about the team right there.

Talk all you want about the necessary talent, but when it comes right down to it, teams get to Final Fours and teams win championships. A single player or even a couple of players rarely do the trick, and over these last 10 games the Cats have shown the true togetherness of one solid team.

There were some, myself included, who wondered about the John Calipari strategy of narrowing his rotation down to six players. But what the Cats may have lacked in depth, the super six made up for with a strong bond between the three veterans and the three freshmen.

That trait shows up especially on the defensive end. The Cats blocked 11 shots against Ohio State. They made 10 steals against North Carolina. They have held their last 32 opponents under 50 percent from the field. The last team to top that magic mark? UConn, which shot 57.7 percent in that 84-67 drubbing of the Cats back on Nov. 24.

If Kentucky was not the same team that faced North Carolina back in December, it's certainly not the same team that lost to Connecticut in that Maui final right before Thanksgiving.

Josh Harrellson played 25 minutes without scoring a point that night in Hawaii. That was before No. 55 transformed from the jorts-wearing goofball with the dangerous Twitter tendencies into the Incredible Hulk.

DeAndre Liggins couldn't stop Walker, who scored 29 points, including 17 in the first half. That was before Liggins turned into the energetic lock-down defender who can change the direction of a contest.

In Maui, trigger-happy Terrence Jones took 41 shots in three games. In the NCAA Tournament, the more measured freshman has taken just 33 shots in four games.

Eloy Vargas played 19 minutes in that first game against the Huskies, Jon Hood played 10. Now, both can count their minutes on one hand. Doron Lamb played 14 minutes in that Maui final. He normally sees the floor for more than double that amount now.

Connecticut isn't the same team, either. Freshman Jeremy Lamb scored two points against the Cats. He's averaging 16 points a game in the NCAA Tournament. Niels Giffey started for the Huskies that day and scored 14 points. He's scored in double figures once since. He's played five minutes for Calhoun the last three games.

But Kentucky has avenged earlier losses to Vanderbilt, Florida, Mississippi and North Carolina. No reason the Cats can't do the same Saturday against Connecticut.

After 29 wins, no reason why the Cats can't get two more.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com. Follow him on Twitter at @johnclayiv.

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