Final Four Buildup: Introducing The Kentucky Wildcats

The buildup to the Final Four concludes today with a look at Kentucky. Following the same format we did with Louisville, Ohio State and Kansas, TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the Wildcats’ personnel, tracks their path to New Orleans and looks back on the program’s recent Final Four history.

PERSONNEL: John Calipari uses a six-man rotation. If we use the benchmark of about 20 minutes per game as determining if a player is a real part of the regular rotation, six isn’t unusual. But Calipari’s six is top-heavy, with only one other player even being in double digits, and four of the key six breaking the 30-minute mark. Anthony Davis at center is the team’s most celebrated player and presuming the freshman enters the NBA draft, will be the first overall pick in June. He’s a double-digit scorer and rebounder, and blocks five shots a game. It’s not hard to see why the pro scouts love him and why opposing college coaches fear him. But don’t overlook Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who might be the #2 pick. His stats aren’t as spiffy, but he does average 12/8, and has a way of playing his best in the biggest games. The third freshman in the regular rotation is point guard Marquis Teague, who does an excellent job distributing the ball and can shoot just well enough to keep defenses honest, as Iowa State could attest in a second-round game when Teague lit them up for 24 points. The sophomore class on this team is Terrence Jones up front, a 6’9” bruiser who stands in contrast to the lanky Davis. Doron Lamb is the team’s best outside shooter, hitting 47 percent from both inside and outside the arc. Lamb is also the team’s best free-throw shooter and would presumably be the one Calipari wants with the ball in end-game situations. And yes, Kentucky does have a senior getting significant playing time, that being Darius Miller, a 6’8” forward with a respectable outside shooting touch.

SEASONAL ARC: Kentucky won its two big tests of the early schedule, beating Kansas prior to Thanksgiving and then winning a one-point thriller over North Carolina at Rupp Arena on December 3, a game I expected to see again on Monday in New Orleans. UK took its only regular season loss on a buzzer-beater at Indiana on December 10, then recovered with four easy wins, including one over future NCAA Tournament team Lamar. That set the stage for their 69-62 win over Louisville on New Year’s Eve. Kentucky then proceeded to systematically dismantle the SEC. They won their first nine games, including a sweep of Tennessee and the closest game was a 77-71 decision over Alabama at Rupp. The week after the Super Bowl was the time for the ‘Cats to really lay claim to the territory though. Florida and Vanderbilt were on the schedule for a Tuesday/Saturday run on national TV, and UK won both games decisively. Florida and Vandy represented two of the final three regular season games, and though the Commodores were a tougher out this time, Kentucky still swept both rivals. After a win in the SEC Tournament over LSU, it was time for a third straight Florida/Vandy run. This one wasn’t as sharp. Kentucky narrowly escaped Florida by three and then lost the tournament final to Vanderbilt. Calipari was unconcerned and it appears he was right to be so. Kentucky played sharp offensive basketball in beating Iowa State to reach the Sweet 16, taking revenge on Indiana and then a complete domination of a talented Baylor team that put Kentucky back in the Final Four for a second straight season.

FINAL FOUR HISTORY: My short book, Memories Of March Madness, covers a lot of Kentucky’s seven previous Final Four appearances in the post-Wooden era that began in 1976, and I hope you’ll take a look at it for just $2.99. Here’s a brief rundown…

*1978: Jack Givens lights up Duke for 41 in the NCAA final and Kentucky wins its first national title in the post-Adolph Rupp era.

*1984: A little home cookin’ in Lexington got Kentucky through stiff regional tests against Louisville and Illinois, but a neutral floor and Georgetown’s stifling defense did them in at the Final Four in Seattle.

*1993: Rick Pitino brought his team to New Orleans led by Jamal Mashburn and a bunch of no-names. They almost upended Michigan’s heralded Fab Five, before losing in overtime. In spite of the fact that Pitino only had one of the top six players on the floor it was speculated by the press that he’d been outcoached by Michigan’s Steve Fischer. The notion seems as insane writing this today as it did back then.

*1996: The national title returned to Lexington, as Kentucky dominated all year long and then finished the job with a decisive run through the NCAA Tournament. The biggest game was against UMass in the semi-finals…pitting Pitino against John Calipari.

*1997: A return trip to the final game came up just short in overtime as Arizona edged Kentucky.

*1998: New coach in Tubby Smith, but back in the Final Four and this time with another national title, as the ‘Cats won a gut-wrenching Final Four game over Stanford and then beat Utah on Monday night.

*2011: I recall last year being surprised that it had been that long for Kentucky to be out of the Final Four. Calipari did a solid coaching job getting his young team to peak at the end of the season, win the SEC Tournament, and then oust the top two seeds in the East, Ohio State and North Carolina. UConn ended the dream in the Final Four.