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John Clay: Freshmen hold key for repeat of history

Loss mimicked setup to '98 title

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 4, 2011 

HOUSTON — History has an unpleasant habit of repeating.

In 1997, Kentucky lost the national championship game in overtime to Arizona in the mammoth venue known as the Hoosier Dome, at least in part because the Wildcats struggled at the free-throw line, making just nine of 17 attempts.

Nazr Mohammed turned in an outstanding game that night, scoring 12 points and grabbing 11 rebounds, but the 6-foot-10 center was a dreadful 0-for-6 at the foul line.

In 2011, Kentucky lost the national semifinal game by a single point to Connecticut in the mammoth venue known as Reliant Stadium, at least in part because the Wildcats struggled at the free-throw line, making just four of 12 attempts.

Terrence Jones turned in a stellar effort, scoring 11 points and grabbing a game-high 15 rebounds on Saturday night, but the 6-foot-8 forward was a dreadful 0-for-5 at the foul line.

"I'm not making excuses," Jones said afterward, his head down in the Kentucky locker room. "I know I missed five free throws that really hurt us."

After Kentucky's 1997 heartbreak, it recovered nicely to win the national championship the next season.

Before the Big Blue Nation banks on another repeat of history, it's a much different game these days. Back then, Mohammed returned in '98 for his junior year, helping the Cats to their seventh crown. The same can't be expected of Jones, whose uneven performances are more in tune with that of a young collegian, but whose skill set and upside share a certain kinship with most high NBA draft picks.

Same goes for Brandon Knight, the rookie point guard whose shooting touch betrayed the Floridian for much of the NCAA Tournament. Knight's bad-game/good-game yin and yang reared its ugly head again Saturday when the star guard missed 17 of his 23 shots. But given the projected shallow draft pool for this summer, Knight could find it advantageous to jump now, instead of later.

Even Doron Lamb is not an absolute lock to return, though the freshman said earlier in the tourney he would remain in Lexington.

In Saturday night's post-game media conference, after the 56-55 loss to Connecticut, junior DeAndre Liggins fielded a question about his future. "Was this your last game in a Kentucky uniform?" was the query.

With John Calipari in charge, we know there will always be plenty of outrageous talent ready to put on that uniform for the first time. Next season is an in-spades season. Michael Gilchrist, Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer are on board, a Fab Four of replenishments.

But for those who say you can't win a national title with one-and-dones, Calipari advanced the pushed-back one round farther. Last year's Cats hit the ceiling in the Elite Eight. This year's team, with three freshmen among its top six players, fell by one point in the Final Four.

"I like experience," Calipari repeated several times during the tournament. "But if you give me the choice between talent and experience, I'll take talent every time."

If Connecticut wins Monday night, there will be another repeat of history. UConn is the last national champ to have a freshman in its starting lineup. Josh Boone was the rookie starting at forward on Jim Calhoun's 2004 title team. UConn could start three freshmen Monday night: Jeremy Lamb, a freshman guard from Jodie Meeks' old high school in Norcross, Ga., Roscoe Smith and Tyler Olander.

You have to go back to Syracuse in 2003 with Carmelo Anthony to find a national champion that was led by a freshman.

None of Kentucky's seven national championship teams started a freshman. Considering that his team next year again will be led by freshmen, I wouldn't bet against Calipari making history.

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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