Alex Oriakhi battles Kentucky's Eloy Vargas in the regular-season meeting (AP)
April 2, 2011
HOUSTON (AP) - Brandon Knight can run through the list of Kentucky's issues over the winter as easily as the straight-A student can rip through an exam.
Missed shots, inexperience and untimely defensive lapses - all valid reasons why the Wildcats found themselves wobbling through the regular season collecting nearly as many losses (eight) as coach John Calipari's previous three teams combined (nine).
True enough. Yet the candid point guard says Kentucky's biggest problem - beyond a freshman-laden squad trying to live up to expectations - was ego.
As in, too much of it.
"At the beginning we weren't as good as we thought we were," he said.
The defeats piled up, yet Calipari didn't panic even as he threw around phrases such as "crisis mode." He remained convinced Kentucky would grow up, even if it took longer than he anticipated.
Calipari insisted that all that mattered was the postseason. If the Wildcats dumped the selfishness and focused on something other than the numbers next to their name in the box score, he promised them they'd get another shot at the teams that handled them earlier in the year.
Calipari was right.
Now the once dysfunctional group has been dubbed "The Redeem Team" for its ability to exact revenge.
Kentucky has avenged six of its eight defeats this season and will get a chance at a seventh on Saturday when the Wildcats (29-8) play Connecticut (30-9) in the Final Four.
The Huskies whipped Kentucky 84-67 in the finals of the Maui Invitational a day before Thanksgiving.
Back then, UConn was considered a middle-of-the-pack BIG EAST team and Walker a role player not expected to become one of the country's top scorers. The Huskies dispatched both assumptions in 40 dominating minutes.
"I think we underestimated them and didn't play hard," Kentucky center Josh Harrellson said.
It certainly looked that way as the Huskies thrashed Kentucky while handing Calipari his worst loss in four years. Playing their fourth game in six days, the Wildcats shot just 37 percent and looked helpless as Walker went off for 29 points.
"He killed us," said Kentucky guard DeAndre Liggins, who served as the primary defender on Walker.
It was a jarring reality check for a team that expected the incoming freshman trio of Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb to pick up where John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and company left off last spring.
Calipari had no illusions. He spent last summer telling anyone within earshot the Wildcats would lose early.
He never said anything about losing late.
And the Wildcats haven't.
Kentucky has won 10 straight entering the 14th Final Four in school history, with five of those wins coming against teams that beat the Wildcats earlier in the year.
The run started with a 76-68 win over Florida on February 26. Get even wins over Vanderbilt, Mississippi and Alabama followed.
The Wildcats were just getting started. They ripped the Gators again in the SEC title game and evened another score by knocking off West Virginia in the third round of the NCAAs to send the team that ended Kentucky's run last spring home early.
Then came graduation, a 76-69 win over North Carolina in the regional final last Sunday, a victory that showcased how far the Wildcats had come in the months since the Tar Heels edged them by a bucket in Chapel Hill on Dec. 4.
Kentucky took control early then dug in when North Carolina tied at 67 with 3:18 to go. Knight drilled a 3-pointer, and Liggins added one for good measure as the Wildcats pulled away in the final minute.
It's a game the Wildcats admit they would have lost in the regular season, when seven of their eight defeats were by an average of 3.1 points.
The rematches have been blowouts by comparison. Only Vanderbilt came within a possession of pulling off the sweep. No other team came within six points of beating the Kentucky a second time.
A victory over the Huskies would bring the Wildcats full circle, and UConn isn't reading to much into what happened in the tiny gym tucked among the palm trees in Maui.
"They are an extremely different team now," Walker said. "They're playing their best basketball of the year."
The secret, the players say, is that there is no secret.
Calipari, never one to pore over hours of tape, didn't change the way he prepared the Wildcats to play, and the stats don't point to any one area where Kentucky has greatly improved.
Though the players insist they are a better defensive team than they were in January, Jones points to a trust level between teammates that didn't exist when UConn steamrolled them in paradise as the difference.
Back then, Jones could sense a lack of confidence on the floor in critical situations. It led to some players taking on too much responsibility, with sometimes disastrous results.
"Now there's a lot more balance," he said.
And one more shot at payback.