Analysts who bashed Cats say Kentucky is 'transformed'

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 25, 2014 

Barely two weeks ago, ESPN analysts Seth Greenberg and Dick Vitale all but wrote Kentucky's basketball obituary. Now, with the Cats having won two NCAA Tournament games, including a victory over unbeaten and No. 1 seed Wichita State, they acknowledged that they needed to reassess.

"After the South Carolina game, I didn't think it was possible," Greenberg said Tuesday of UK's revival. "But when I watched them in the SEC Tournament, I thought the light bulb went on."

Vitale did not disavow calling Kentucky "a major disappointment" going into the Southeastern Conference Tournament. "I will stand by that as loud and as clear as can be," he said. "I didn't go to Harvard. I can't spell Harvard. I'm not a genius. But I think anybody in their right mind would know if a team is picked (pre-season) No. 1 in the nation and they don't finish in the top 25 at the end of the regular season, how else would you label it? How else? What logic?"

But, Vitale added, it's a different Kentucky team that will play archrival Louisville in a Sweet Sixteen game Friday in Indianapolis.

"Kentucky has absolutely transformed themselves to where they play for the name on the front of that jersey with energy, enthusiasm and pride," he said. "That I did not see during the season."

As for Friday's game, Vitale said he gave the "slightest edge" to Louisville.

"Because of winners' experience, tournament experience," he said. "To a veteran team over a young team."

The analysts noted several keys in the Kentucky-Louisville game.

Kentucky must rebound well, handle Louisville's pressure defense and attack the rim in hopes of getting the Cards in foul trouble, Greenberg said. Louisville must control tempo, keep Montrezl Harrell out of foul trouble and hope Russ Smith breaks out of a funk: 6-for-19 shooting (1-for-6 from three-point range) and 13 turnovers in two NCAA Tournament games.

"He has not had that breakout game," Greenberg said. "I'd be concerned if I was Kentucky because he's due.

Kentucky's bench celebrate after Wichita win.

"But Russ Smith needs to be Russdiculous and Russfabulous. And Luke Hancock has to make shots."

Vitale also cited perimeter shooting as a key factor.

"I think it will come down to who wins that battle on that perimeter," he said.

Of course, Kentucky was not supposed to still be playing, as evidenced by an eight seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Kentucky of the regular season probably would not be playing Louisville.

"I see a team playing for the good of the group," Greenberg said. "I see guys giving up themselves for the good of the group. I see guys more connected defensively. I see the ball moving as opposed to being stuck.

"One thing is obviously collecting talent. The next thing is getting that talent to trust each other. One thing is defining roles. The next thing is getting guys to embrace roles. John (Calipari) has done a great job when you think of where they were against South Carolina and where they are right now."

Calipari spoke of a "tweak" that people knowledgeable about basketball would easily observe.

"I joked with him, naturally, two days ago," Greenberg said. "'Tweaking the Wildcats,' that'll be his next book.

"I think he empowered some guys. I think he simplified things offensively."

And passing became contagious, Greenberg added. Andrew and Aaron Harrison became more purposeful on drives to the basket.

"Now they're driving downhill to contact as opposed to away from contact," the ESPN analyst said.

Vitale noted the 61-60 loss to Florida in the SEC Tournament finals as significant. He saw the Cats playing with a new-found "fever pitch."

Calipari had been good-naturedly "squeezing" Vitale about the major-disappointment label, the ESPN analyst said with a chuckle before adding, "He's really thrilled that the kids have finally turned, to understand about playing hard."

To borrow from basketball lexicon, the transformation was part of the "process" that all teams undertake. Greenberg suggested that urgency associated with the NCAA Tournament helped.

"We've come to the end of the road," he said in guessing at Calipari's message to UK players. "Either the light bulb's going to go on or you're probably going to move on.

"How do you want your time here defined?"

Vitale, who put a memorable label on Kentucky two weeks ago, now deferred to a higher authority.

"That's the beauty of March Madness," he said. "You can change that whole perception. People remember what you do now."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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