John Clay: UK-Baylor has look of all-star game

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 24, 2012 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

ATLANTA — One game away.

One game away from a Kentucky-Louisville showdown in the national semifinals.

One game away from a second straight Final Four.

The NCAA Tournament's No. 1 overall seed is one game away from being one step closer to an eighth national championship.

To reach college basketball's mecca in New Orleans, however, Kentucky's Wildcats must take a step back in time and win what could well be an AAU all-star game.

As Kentucky proved again Friday night in its frenetic 102-90 win over Indiana, the Cats have nearly breathtaking talent.

John Calipari has signed the sport's No. 1 recruiting class three years in a row. Anthony Davis was the consensus No. 1 prospect coming out of high school last season. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist held that distinction for much of the prep campaign. Some services ranked Marquis Teague as the nation's No. 1 point guard prospect.

But Baylor, the region's No. 3 seed, isn't exactly playing with a group of no-talents, either.

In fact, much like Calipari, Bears Coach Scott Drew has ruffled some feathers with not just his aggressive recruiting, but his ability to woo players at the highest level to the tiny outpost of Waco.

Perry Jones III was Rivals' No. 9-rated prospect in the Class of 2010 and projected as a top-five NBA Draft prospect. Quincy Miller was rated as the seventh-best prospect in the Class of 2011, and starred along with his AAU teammate Deuce Bello, himself a Baylor Bear.

"We're pretty athletic, too," said Drew when asked about Kentucky's talent.

Is this the South Regional finals, or the Jordan Brand Classic?

"There's going to be some crazy plays out there," said UK sophomore Doron Lamb in the pre-game interviews on Saturday, shaking his head.

On one hand, such a glamor game references the debate on the pros and cons of AAU basketball, a slice of the college game some coaches abhor but both Calipari and Drew have managed to mine to their benefit.

"There's different reasons people criticize it," said Drew on Saturday. "Missing school, the freedom, the multiple games, people don't learn fundamentals, if you care about losing enough. At the same time, there's a lot positive. Guys get to play against a lot of other great players they wouldn't normally play against."

"I'd rather call it summer basketball," Calipari said. "The one thing it's done, it's brought all these kids together, and so now you have a player that's played against all these other freshmen. If he's really good, then he's played against all these guys. He's not surprised."

In other words, no fear factor today. No shock and awe.

"Nowadays, top players play against top players, and they're motivated because somebody is ranked higher than they are or whatnot," Drew said. "Maybe they don't think they're that good."

Terrence Jones, ranked 13th by Rivals in that Class of 2010, and Perry Jones (ninth) know each other, and text each other, from their time playing on the AAU and all-star circuits.

It's the same thing for UK's Teague (fifth in 2011) and Baylor's Miller (seventh), two players who crossed paths as top-shelf recruits and summer-league standouts.

"We all know each other," said Teague.

And, now, they all want the same thing.

Perry Jones was considered a cinch lottery pick last year but, his season ended by an NCAA eligibility suspension in March 2011, he decided to return for another try at a Final Four.

"This is exactly the reason why I came back," he said Saturday. "Last year was terrible, that's a feeling that I don't want to have going into the next year. That's the reason I came back to try and lead my team to the Final Four and a national championship."

And now that it's here?

"It feels amazing, to be honest," said Perry Jones. "I'm more excited than anything right now."

Same thing on the UK side, where Lamb said, "I just want to go out there (Sunday) and have fun. Try to go to the Final Four my second time, my second year in college."

One (all-star) game away.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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