UK basketball notebook: Walker still feels pain of '86 loss to LSU

Herald-Leader staff writerApril 5, 2014 

As the singer Meatloaf (Google the name, kids) suggested, two out of three ain't bad. So three out of four should have been quite good.

Try telling that to former Kentucky All-American Kenny Walker. Twenty-eight years has not deadened the pain he feels. That's because after winning the first three games, UK lost the all-important fourth, which came in the 1986 NCAA Tournament Southeast Region finals.

"I don't know if I've ever gotten over it," he said last week.

The possibility of Kentucky playing Florida a fourth time this season on Monday night evoked memories of the UK-LSU competition. One team — Kentucky then, Florida now — swept the first three games. That fueled confidence for one team, resolve in the other.

"I put it this way, there was no doubt in my mind we were going to win that game," Walker said of the fourth meeting. "I was even talking to Roger Harden before the game. 'Man, we already went to the Final Four in '84. Now, we're going to win this game and go to the Final Four again.'

"There was no thought about losing."

Ricky Blanton, a hero for LSU in the fourth game, said the first three games meant nothing to the Tigers.

"You kind of forget all the things in the regular season because you're playing with so much confidence," he said. "Really, the three previous games don't have much impact. I was 19 (or) 20 years old. Not much of that entered my thoughts. It was the opportunity to go to the Final Four, a lifelong dream."

Kentucky won the first game in Baton Rouge 54-52 when Harden hit a last-second shot. UK needed no clutch shot in winning the second game 68-57.

Dale Brown, the LSU coach, recalled consoling star guard Derrick Taylor.

"Might have been false motivation," Brown said last week, "but I told Derrick, 'We'll play them again and it'll be different.'"

It wasn't.

Kentucky beat LSU 61-58 in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals with Harden hitting a 22-footer to clinch it.

By then, LSU had moved Blanton, a 6-foot-6 wing, to center. The Tigers' corps of big men had been depleted by suspension (Tito Horford), injury (Neboisha Bukumirovich tore an ACL playing pickup basketball while visiting Blanton's home for Christmas) and academic shortcomings (Nikita Wilson).

Brown recalled calling Blanton to the office. "'Ricky, we're going nowhere,'" he told the player. "'I'm moving you to center.'"

Blanton was not amused.

"I remember pretty vividly, instantly I was not too pleased," Blanton said last week. "It was taking a fish out of water. ...

"Looking back, it was the best thing that happened in my career. I was a better player because of it."

Blanton, who tried to bulk up by eating two peanut butter-and-honey sandwiches before bedtime each night, became an LSU icon. In the fourth meeting, he held his own against Walker with 12 points and eight rebounds. Walker led UK with 20 points (the most he scored in any of the four games), but LSU won 59-57.

"To me, that loss was more devastating than the Georgetown loss a couple years before," Walker said in reference to a 1984 Final Four loss that saw Kentucky famously make only three of 33 shots in the second half. "Because you know when you beat a team three times, you're better."

Cal the marketer

John Calipari the coach gave way to John Calipari the marketer on Friday. That's when he floated a new label to put on players who stay in college the mandatory one season before going to the NBA.

"The connotation that has been built around 'one-and-done' is so ridiculous to make it a bad thing," Calipari said. "It's a negative thing. It's not used in other sports. It's not used in other areas of life where people stay in school a year and leave."

Earlier in the week, Calipari teased the customers, er, fans by suggesting the need for labeling. On Friday, he followed up.

"The thing we have been talking about is 'succeed and proceed' ... You cannot proceed until you succeed. Succeed and then proceed. It will be on T-shirts."

Calipari, a marketing major in college, has a knack for catchy slogans. For example, he took a convoluted name for an attacking basketball offense and boiled it down to ... dribble-drive.

Marcus Lee, who received an ovation when he entered a marketing class last Tuesday, noted Calipari's skill as a salesman.

"You can see it in his talks," Lee said. "The way he talks to people, he makes you see things in your mind. Which is really cool."

Sam Malone, who received the Elite 89 award as having the highest grade-point average of any player in the Final Four, agreed. By the way, he's a marketing/business major.

"He definitely does a good job of marketing his program," Malone said of Calipari, "and showing the good things about the University of Kentucky and his players."

In the book Going Bigtime, which chronicles how Calipari put UMass on the college basketball map, he explained his personal ethos.

"I think anything you do in life is about selling," he's quoted as saying in Chapter 11. "Selling yourself to other people."

Sir Charles

Ernie Johnson, the host of TBS's Final Four studio show, described Charles Barkley as a revolutionary figure.

"What he means to sports television, I don't think you can measure," Johnson said. "I think he changed the landscape."

Until Barkley, these studio shows were plastic and predictable. Largely interchangeable people (aka the "talent") mouthing the same blah-blah-blah about whatever particular teams happened to be playing on that day's telecast.

"He allowed us to go off the beaten path," Johnson said of Barkley. "It was no longer the meat-and-potatoes pregame and postgame show.

"If Charles had something on his mind, he was going to say it."

Barkley could get away with speaking his mind. "He'd built up that equity over the years being the most quotable NBA player," Johnson said.

Of course, Kentucky fans originally got to know Barkley when he was Auburn's Round Mound of Rebound in the 1980s. Even then, he was fun to be around. He was irreverent and — how to put this? — he was real.

After his NBA career, Barkley brought these qualities to the illusionary world of TV.

"To his credit, he didn't change a bit," Johnson said. "We kind of changed along with him."

Being the Cyndi Lauper of sports TV (he's so unusual) only gets someone so far.

"It's one thing to go off the rails a little bit and it's not funny or not entertaining or not accurate," Johnson said. "He made the show so unpredictable and so much fun and so spontaneous that I think others look at it and said, 'We need Charles Barkley.' But there's only one of him and we got him."

The Final Four telecasts are something of a hybrid. Analysts, announcers and hosts from CBS and TBS share the duties. This meant Clark Kellogg, one of CBS's top analysts, would share time with Barkley. This led Johnson to offer Kellogg some advice.

"I can't really prepare you for what's going to happen," Johnson said he told Kellogg. "But enjoy it because it's really a fun ride."

Mixing metaphors as if to show how Barkley ignores TV customs, Johnson said, "You kind of roll with the punches and hit the curve ball."

'Rolled her eyes'

Arguably, the most famous championship game since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams happened in 1985. Villanova, an 8-seed, upset defending champion Georgetown in Rupp Arena.

Chuck Everson, a player on that Villanova team, returned to Lexington to watch his daughter, Kathleen, play in an AAU tournament. Of course, dad told his daughter about the famous victory, how Villanova shot with phenomenal accuracy and stunned the college basketball world by winning.

Kathleen's reaction?

"She kind of rolled her eyes," Everson said. "She's heard it so much."

Kathleen, now a player for Bryant University, had been struggling as a player prior to coming to Lexington for the AAU tournament. To bring his daughter luck, Everson cut a piece of the net he got as a souvenir from the 1985 championship game. He tied the piece to his daughter's bed.

"That was kind of cool," he said.

By the way, Everson said he'd been rooting for Kentucky and Connecticut in this year's Final Four. "I like rooting for the underdogs," he said.

Legacy

In terms of his legacy, Florida Coach Billy Donovan came to this year's Final Four playing with house money. He already had two national championships, three Final Four appearances and numerous other Elite Eight games prior to Dallas.

"I don't think Billy Donovan takes a back seat to anyone in terms of his coaching acumen," CBS analyst Greg Anthony said.

Anthony suggested another factor that makes Donovan's legacy secure.

"The other thing that kind of separates (Donovan) is he created a basketball power where there wasn't one," he said.

Florida was not a Kansas, a North Carolina, a Louisville, a Kentucky, Anthony said. Now Florida is in that category.

Noting that Donovan and UK Coach John Calipari are the only coaches to lead their teams to the Elite Eight in four of the last five years, Anthony said of Donovan, "It's not about is he in the discussion (of the best coaches ever). He was prior to this tournament. He's done a phenomenal job."

Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall echoed the sentiment. "I think he's one in a couple handfuls of the greatest coaches of all time," he said.

Donovan sounded taken aback when someone asked him if he reflected on being in the same category as Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Pitino.

"How do I answer that?" he said.

Donovan credited the players he's had at Florida and expressed gratitude for being able to coach at one school for 18 years.

'Grew into it'

Ernie Myers played for North Carolina State's 1983 national championship team. So he knows a Cinderella when he sees one. He does not see one in Kentucky.

"They were preseason No. 1 in the country," Myers said last week. "So if they wind up winning this thing, the (preseason) prognostication was correct. They kind of grew into it."

'Somber time'

The Associated Press named Gregg Marshall of Wichita State its national coach of the year. The Shockers went through the regular season unbeaten, then lost to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament third round two weekends ago in St. Louis.

When asked Friday about the mood of his team and his campus, Marshall said, "It's a somber time."

Happy birthday

To Kyle Macy. He turns 57 on Wednesday.

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

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