HOUSTON — With retirement looming, Lee T. Todd Jr. used an interview last month to reflect on his decade as University of Kentucky president. One of his regrets, he said, was not being able to watch UK play in the Final Four since he became the biggest man on campus in 2001.
"I really didn't expect this," Todd said Saturday as he took a seat in Reliant Stadium before Kentucky faced Connecticut in the national semifinals.
As the Cats lost close game after close game this season, Coach John Calipari tried to ease Todd's anxiety by reminding him that the shorthanded, freshman-oriented team was making progress. But memories of No.1-seeded UK losing to Marquette in 2003 and Alabama-Birmingham in 2004 tested the president's faith.
"This is so pleasing," Todd said of UK's unexpected advancement to this year's Final Four. "I've smiled for about two weeks. My (facial) muscles are hurting."
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A Final Four was expected last year when Kentucky rode the stampeding talents of an unprecedented five first-round draft picks. Or next year, when perhaps Calipari's best recruiting class yet arrives.
"This was one of those 'tweener' years," Todd said.
But this was the season that ended the longest Final Four drought in UK basketball history.
"We got Kentucky back," said Josh Harrellson, who epitomized this season of delightful surprises. "A lot of people doubted us. A lot of people really didn't think we'd be the team we are. We really pulled it together as a team, and we're back now."
Except for the 56-55 loss to UConn on Saturday night, it's hard to imagine the Calipari Era getting off to a much better start. His first team went 35-3 and thrilled the salesman's heart that beats in Calipari's breast by getting those five first-round draft picks, four of whom were freshmen. Talk about great advertising for UK basketball as the fast-track to the NBA.
Then this season Kentucky crashed onto college basketball's grandest stage. UK basketball resides again at the corner of fame and fortune.
Expectations might have been modest by Kentucky standards, even more so when the NCAA denied UK's appeals and declared freshman Enes Kanter permanently ineligible.
But Calipari bristled when a reporter suggested in Newark last week that Kentucky was the little engine that could. "We're not the little engine," he said.
That echoed a thought expressed repeatedly this season: Kentucky had talented, if inexperienced, players.
Coach Thad Matta, whose Ohio State team came into this NCAA Tournament as the overall No. 1 seed, flashed anger when a reporter asked whether the Buckeyes lost to Kentucky because UK was young and "not supposed to be" in the Sweet 16 round.
"Can I ask you a question?" Matta said. "How the hell are they not supposed to be here? They just won the (Southeastern Conference) Tournament. It is a hell of a basketball team there, man."
West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins said much the same thing after losing to Kentucky. In his signature deadpan delivery, Huggins said of the Cats, "There's a reason why everybody recruits those guys. They're pretty good."
With the one-and-done clock ticking, the season became a test of Calipari's coaching skills. His task was to take heralded freshmen and veteran role players and form a competitive, if not formidable, team.
Calipari stumbled in the pre-season when he dismissed Harrellson's 26 rebounds in the Blue-White scrimmage as an indictment of UK's ability on the boards. Harrellson tweeted his famous how-can-I-please-this-guy message. A displeased UK coach ordered extra conditioning as punishment and, thanks to unintended consequences, developed a productive and inspirational big man.
To bring out the best in essentially a six-man team, Calipari appealed, barked, cajoled, begged and demanded the best. Continually concerned about toughness, he set a treadmill near the practice court and banished players to it for various infractions. One day, he brought out a heavy bag and tried to make the Cats literally punch their ticket to excellence.
Calipari got results.
Harrellson, who played 15 minutes against conference teams last season, led the league in rebounding.
Darius Miller, whose refusal to shoot at Ole Miss was painful to witness, scored double-digit points in 10 straight games down the stretch before the NCAA Tournament.
DeAndre Liggins became a lockdown defender. Ask Tennessee's Scotty Hopson (five-of-18 shooting in two games), Florida's Erving Walker (six-of-30 in three games), West Virginia's Joe Mazzulla (five second-half points after 15 in the first) and North Carolina's Kendall Marshall (two-for-10).
No greater a Calipari skeptic than UConn Coach Jim Calhoun gave the UK coach his due. "John Calipari, who always has been an aggressive, incredible personality, has developed into a terrific basketball coach," Calhoun said.
The two games with Connecticut reflected Kentucky's growth. On Maui in November, an earthquake shook the gym as UConn gave UK its most lopsided defeat in Calipari's two seasons as coach. Freshman point guard Brandon Knight committed five turnovers against the Huskies and 18 in the three games of the Maui Invitational. He became an All-SEC player.
Terrence Jones took 44 shots on Maui and transformed himself into what Calipari called "a hero" by sacrificing scoring for the good of the team.
At the Final Four on Saturday, Calipari asked for another earth-shaking moment: a rally from a 10-point deficit.
"Shock the world," he told the players. "Make some shots."
Was anyone surprised that Kentucky rallied. A team that played 15 games decided by seven or fewer points made it another possession-by-possession thriller.
After losing enough of the close ones to go 2-6 on the SEC road, Kentucky put that experience to good use. The Cats' five NCAA Tournament games were decided by a total 20 points.
When UK outplayed North Carolina down the stretch of the East Regional final, Calipari said, "The resiliency this team showed was unbelievable."
UNC Coach Roy Williams saw the hand of fate. "You know," he said, "sometimes things may be meant to be."
That thought echoed as UConn survived Kentucky's attempt at a game-winner Saturday, just as the Huskies dodged Arizona's two potential game-winning shots in the West Regional final.
"This team, we're like brothers," freshman Doron Lamb said after the UConn game. "We always stuck behind each other. We all worked hard in practice and pushed ourselves in games. And coach told us he's proud of us. Everybody got better, everybody matured this season, and he's happy about that."