Kentucky too big, athletic for UConn

RYAN WOLSTAT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:23 PM ET

HOUSTON — The Wildcats will reign in Texas.

But first, they need to get by the surging University of Connecticut Huskies.

It won’t be easy for Kentucky. The NCAA tournament semi-final between the teams will be a battle. The winner should easily take care of the Butler-Virginia Commonwealth victor in the other semi-final though — so this matchup seems even more crucial than a game of this magnitude normally does.

One of the NCAA’s youngest squads, Kentucky has grown up.

Once immature and selfish, the Wildcats have matured at a rapid rate. Now, John Calipari’s group seems to get what it takes to win on the brightest stage and how to get the most out of their immense talents.

Kentucky put it together down the stretch of the season, answering a dreadful 4-4 February with nine wins in a row — and counting — in March.

Calipari explained why on Friday.

“The veteran players, the guys that were on the team a year ago began to step up and take more responsibility for what was going on (and) the younger guys took a little step back, not much, but a little step back, so they could step forward,” Calipari said.

“But the biggest thing is they started believing in each other. I kept telling them as the challenge escalates, the need for ‘team’ elevates, and you have to be a team. They’re starting to do that, or have started to do it and have been doing it for a few weeks.”

Besides some crucial late-game shot-making by guard Brandon Knight — the Wildcats wouldn’t even be here without Knight’s winners against Ohio State and Princeton — the unexpected play of big man Josh Harrellson has been pivotal for Kentucky.

Just as fellow senior Brian Zoubek stepped up for Duke on the way to a championship a year ago, so to has Harrellson. Averaging 15 points, nine rebounds and 1.5 blocks for the tournament, he has been a force inside at both ends of the floor.

With sharp-shooter Doron Lamb and Darius Miller stepping up, the fact that star freshman Terrence Jones’ offensive game has gone south in a major way has not been a huge issue.

Sure stopping UConn’s magnificent Kemba Walker has been something nobody has been able to do in March, but Kentucky has the steady Knight or, more likely, the long and athletic DeAndre Liggins to throw at him.

“(Liggins) can guard a point guard, a two-man, a three-man, and if I wanted him to, he could probably guard the four,” Calipari said.

“Whoever is hurting you, he can go guard.”

Walker knows scoring against Liggins and Kentucky will be a challenge.

“We actually played against them already, so I faced him already.

“I faced guys just like him. But, you know, he’s one of the better defenders because he’s extremely active and he has a height mismatch over me. He’s got great length,” Walker said.

“I know it’s going to be a difficult, tough night for me. But I’m just counting on my teammates to give me the ball in the right situations and set up some great screens.”

If Kentucky can bother Walker enough and keep Alex Oriakhi from getting easy shots inside, UConn will fall, perhaps by a large margin.

If Walker gets his the way he usually does — barring a Kobe Bryant-esque 81-point explosion, of course — it will be tighter, but the Wildcats have the shooting they lacked a year ago to pull this one out regardless.

There is no question Connecticut is a solid team and Walker is on a legendary roll dating back to his heroics in the five wins in five nights Big East tourney title run for UConn, but, Kentucky’s last two opponents were better, and they lost.

Ohio State was the top team in the country and they managed just 60 points against the Wildcats. North Carolina, the biggest team in the tournament fell too, 76-69.

The Huskies are a much smaller team than either UNC or Ohio State and they will have countless shots changed or blocked by the athletic and aggressive Wildcats.

Both teams play hard for their head coach, the gang from Kentucky is desperate to get Calipari his first championship while UConn’s players know 68-year-old Jim Calhoun might not get too many more chances to add to his title collection.

Calhoun needs two wins in Houston to become the fifth men’s basketball coach with three or more NCAA championships.

“Looking back as a true basketball junkie, I clearly would be awed by being in that kind of company,” Calhoun said.

Maybe next year, coach.

It’s Calipari’s time.


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