If you like your sports splashed with a dash of irony, one need look no farther than what fifth-year senior Julius Mays did in Rupp Arena last week for the one college basketball program in the country most closely identified with one-and-done players.
In two games in which defeat would have likely doomed Kentucky's flickering aspirations for an NCAA Tournament bid, a guy whose college career began when George W. Bush was President answered UK's SOS (save our season) call.
With UK clinging to a 61-59 lead against Vanderbilt last Wednesday, Mays, the shooting guard working at his third Division I school, beat an expiring shot clock with a dagger of a three-pointer. The shot put Kentucky up 64-59 and gave the Cats enough momentum to survive 74-70.
In Saturday's uplifting 90-83 overtime victory over Missouri, a guy who was playing in his 115th college game came through under game-deciding pressure time and again. Mays hit another shot-clock-beating trey late in the second half.
Showing a veteran's canniness, he drew the fifth foul on Missouri standout Laurence Bowers with a head fake that got the Mizzou forward off his feet on a Mays three-point attempt.
The guy who has played at both Wright State and North Carolina State assisted on the Willie Cauley-Stein layup that tied the game with 41 seconds left in regulation. Mays then scored eight points in overtime as UK (19-8, 10-4 SEC) secured a game it had to win.
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Marion, Ind., product finished with a season-high 24 points.
For all the attention John Calipari and his penchant for putting lavishly hyped freshmen into the NBA after one season have gotten, there's a case to be made that this is the third straight Kentucky season where the value of experience has also been on vivid display.
Last season, while true freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were Kentucky's best players, it was senior Darius Miller who hit big shots under pressure late in taut road victories at Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.
In the NCAA Tournament, Miller had 19 points against Iowa State in the round of 32 and 19 against Indiana in the South Region semifinals. Against Louisville in the Final Four, Miller buried a late three-pointer that helped UK survive its archrival.
Two seasons ago, a team that featured freshman stars Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb did not jell into a Final Four squad until senior Josh Harrellson (12 ppg, 8.1 rpg in eight post-season contests) and juniors DeAndre Liggins (game-clinching three-pointer in round of eight victory over North Carolina) and Miller (SEC Tournament MVP) stepped forward in a major way.
Going forward, at a school selling the quickest possible path to the pay-for-play, how do you develop and/or add experienced players who are good enough to help?
In a sense, Calipari's recruiting success makes attracting players likely to be three- or four-year contributors difficult. The No. 85-ranked player in a given recruiting class would be at risk of being "recruited over" at Kentucky.
One avenue to eventually create a veteran nucleus could be in-state talent. Wearing a Kentucky jersey might mean enough to a Derek Willis (UK signee from Bullitt East) or, maybe, a Dominique Hawkins (Madison Central star) that they are willing to come to UK regardless of how many top-10 recruits they will be asked to compete against for playing time.
Another path to experience would be attracting more transfers.
Traditional transfers, who have to sit out a season after leaving their old schools, would likely have the same concerns about being recruited over that non-elite high school recruits from outside Kentucky might have.
(Presumably, when current Wildcats point guard Ryan Harrow agreed to sit out a year in Lexington after transferring from North Carolina State, he had a pledge from Kentucky not to recruit a point guard in the freshman class that would come in the same season he became eligible).
Mays was eligible to come to Kentucky without sitting out because he had already earned an undergraduate degree. Where would UK be now if he had not done so?
In a time when Kentucky can seemingly get its pick of elite players on the fast track to the NBA, is it possible UK's future Final Four hopes also rest on Calipari figuring out a way to attract more players like Darius Miller, Josh Harrellson and Julius Mays, too?
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com