NEW ORLEANS — Since 1996 ...
For Kentucky basketball, any recurrence of a milestone that hasn't happened since the most dominant season in the last 30 years suggests something special. UK made that reference relevant in each of its first two games in this NCAA Tournament.
The 100-71 first-round victory over East Tennessee State on Thursday marked the first time the Cats had reached the century mark in the tournament since beating Utah 101-70 in the Sweet 16 of 1996.
The 90-60 second-round victory over Wake Forest on Saturday made for the biggest two-game margins to begin a NCAA Tournament since the combined 62-point routs of San Jose State (110-72) and Virginia Tech (84-60) to begin the 1996 run to a national championship.
Despite last week's two overwhelming victories, big man DeMarcus Cousins envisioned even better play in a future that begins in Syracuse with an East Regional semifinal game against Cornell on Thursday.
"We can still get better," he said after the humiliation of Wake Forest. "I wish it was the middle of the season. I'd want to see how good we can actually get. I don't know how good we can be."
Could it be possible that the Cats — or any team — could play better than the display in New Orleans? UK made 56.1 percent of its shots (40.7 percent from three-point range), got credit for 48 assists, averaged only 12.5 turnovers, blocked 17 shots and worked persistently to help 13th man Mark Krebs score his first basket since the Hartford game on Dec. 29.
"That was the best part of the game, in my eyes," Cousins said of Krebs' three-pointer from the left corner that put an exclamation point on the Wake Forest game.
Yet, Cousins said, Kentucky can play better.
"I believe we have a lot of room to grow," he said. "If we just had the time."
This Kentucky team figures to continue playing together for no more than two weeks. So there's a limit on the improvement that's possible.
But in that short term, Cousins saw areas where improvement was possible.
"We still gamble a lot," he said. "We don't execute the whole game. A lot of little stuff we can do better."
Cousins can improve his free-throw shooting after making only one of seven against Wake Forest.Maybe the performances in New Orleans were not seamless.
But the ride was a lot smoother than in a regular season that saw the Cats frequently pounce on opponents, then try to make "hero plays," to borrow one of Coach John Calipari's terms. On several occasions, games where Kentucky built comfortable leads required clutch play in the final minutes (or seconds) to secure victory.
By contrast, UK kept pounding East Tennessee and Wake Forest long after the outcome was decided.
"Like coach says, he's making us a team that executes," point guard John Wall said. "Our execution is perfect right now.
"We know if we let a team come back, we don't have the home-court advantage. Our fans aren't here like back home."
Cousins described the newfound ability to put a metaphorical foot on the opponent's throat as the natural progression of a freshman-oriented team.
"We've matured as a team and individuals," he said. "Coach has been on us about that since the season started. We've been working on that, and it shows."
Wake Forest Coach Dino Gaudio came away impressed. He called Kentucky "as good a basketball team as we've played against in the 10 years I've been here."
Gaudio lauded UK's ability to challenge, if not block, shots. As for offense, "boy, they have some skill guys," he said.
In addition to team pillars Patrick Patterson, Cousins and Wall, Calipari noted the solid support from such players as Eric Bledsoe (career-high 29 points against East Tennessee), Darius Miller (career-high 20 against Wake Forest), DeAndre Liggins (seven assists, no turnovers, six rebounds and three steals in 44 minutes in New Orleans), Daniel Orton (14 points and lending moral support in the form of a contact technical foul when Wake tried to rattle Cousins).
All that positive karma hasn't prevented UK coaches from prudently taking precautions. With Kansas, the overall No. 1 seed, wobbling in its second-round game earlier on Saturday, the coaches ordered the televisions turned off before the final minutes.
"We were told to focus on our own game," Cousins said.
After Kansas lost and Kentucky rolled, Calipari recoiled from basketball mavens now tabbing UK as the favorite to win the championship.
"They were also saying we'd be the first No. 1 (seed) out," the UK coach said. "So how do they change, those talking heads, overnight? Come on. We're still a bunch of freshmen and sophomores."
Season ticket holders and K Fund members may request tickets for the East Regional in Syracuse, N.Y., by calling the UK Ticket Office, (859) 257-1818 or 1-800-928-2287 on Monday by noon, or by faxing in a request at (859) 323-1269.
Requests from the general public will be accepted, beginning at noon Monday, based on availability.
Public tickets are also still available through Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com).
Tickets are $148 each and include the two regional semifinal games and the regional finals.