NEW YORK — If Kentucky boasts an unprecedented five first-round picks in Thursday night's NBA Draft, the achievement will raise an interesting question: Why didn't the Cats breeze to a national championship? Or at least end the school's longest absence from a Final Four?
Patrick Patterson, one of three UK players attending the draft, credited West Virginia, which beat Kentucky in the East Regional finals in Syracuse.
"West Virginia wanted it more than us," he said Wednesday. "They performed well, and we performed poorly."
Former UK teammate John Wall, who is expected to be the first player selected in the draft, noted how poorly Kentucky shot against West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone. "I'd rather get beat by getting outplayed than missing shots," he said. "They did a great job playing the zone and forcing us to shoot (from the perimeter)."
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West Virginia did more than lull Kentucky into shooting perimeter shots, which was not a strength for UK all season. The Mountaineers also took the initiative much of the game, more than once making UK's defense look bad.
"We got outplayed the last game against West Virginia," said DeMarcus Cousins, who then lamented what might have been. "We were a talented group. We should have won a national championship."
NBA first-round picks have never been a reliable gauge on college teams advancing to the Final Four and/or winning a national championship.
Of the three teams that produced four first-round picks in a draft, only one won a national championship: North Carolina in 2005. The Tar Heels had four players taken among the first 14 picks (No. 2 Marvin Williams, No. 5 Raymond Felton, No. 13 Sean May, No. 14 Rashad McCants) and barely outlasted Illinois in the championship game.
As for the other two teams to produce four first-round players, Duke lost in the 1999 national championship game, and Connecticut lost to George Mason in an Elite Eight game in 2006.
That record supports the contention of former Kentucky All-American Dan Issel, who said NBA talent alone does not ensure college victories.
"I don't think you can draw a correlation," he said.
The changing nature of the NBA Draft makes that even more true.
"A lot of teams are going to take the kids based on potential," Issel said.
Jay Bilas, a basketball analyst for ESPN, had a ready answer for the paradox of Kentucky as the big winner on draft night and just another wallflower late into the NCAA's Big Dance.
"Because they're young," Bilas wrote via e-mail.
As early as last pre-season, Bilas said the Final Four might be out of Kentucky's reach.
"I thought Kentucky overachieved a bit with its consistency and run in the tournament," he wrote. "Plus, last year was a down year nationally. In 2008 or 2009, with older and more dominant teams, UK might not have made the Elite Eight."
NBA consultant Chris Ekstrand also noted how the NBA Draft's emphasis on potential dilutes the chances for talent to ripen to championship form.
In the 1990s, the NBA Draft went from a focus on production to an attempt to divine potential.
"Now, you don't have to do anything if you fit a profile," Ekstrand said.
Issel, a former NBA All-Star and then coach, said Wall and Patterson produced more than enough to justify their likely draft position: Wall as the first pick overall and Patterson as a late lottery or mid-first-round choice.
The three other UK players in the draft, Cousins, Daniel Orton and Eric Bledsoe, represent varying degrees of risk. Cousins' temperament and conditioning, Orton's idleness the past two seasons and Bledsoe's lack of experience at point guard might make teams nervous.
In a world without one-and-done players, UK's talent would translate into victory parades, Issel said.
"If those guys stayed through their senior years, they'd win a couple (national) championships," he said. "I have no doubt about that."