HOUSTON - They may be old adversaries, but Kentucky coach John Calipari
and Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun
have done their best to downplay their history in the run-up to Saturday’s Final Four matchup between the Wildcats and Huskies.
“It’s Kentucky versus Connecticut,” Calhoun said. “As far as John and I playing, I’d take him into the low post. But we’re not playing the game. My point being, it’s about two schools.”
“We’re fine,” Calipari said when asked about his relationship with Calhoun. “I mean, the Northeast [Calipari’s first head-coaching job was at UMass], you’re so tight. You’re right on top of each other. That’s a competitive environment. Our radio shows and television shows were in each other’s states, in our cities. That’s how it is there.”
KNIGHT MOVES: Brandon Knight
has come a long way since the first time Kentucky played Connecticut. It was Nov. 24 in the championship game of Maui Classic, and the Huskies laid an 84-67 beat down on the Wildcats. Knight, in just the fifth game of his college career, was 3-for-15 from the field, 0-for-8 from three-point range and committed almost as many turnovers (five) as he scored points (six).
Even then, anyone who was familiar with Knight’s game knew that performance was an aberration. And it was. Knight went on to earn first-team All-SEC honors. And since Maui, he’s has developed a John Wall-like ability to take—and make—clutch shots—a skill that has been showcased in the NCAA Tournament. When CBS airs its One Shining Moment
video montage after Monday night’s championship game, Knight’s fingerprints will be all over it. Surely CBS editors will see fit to include Knight’s driving layup that beat Princeton, or his pull-up jump shot with five seconds to play that sent overall No. 1 seed Ohio State packing.
“To make big shots, it’s not that you’re afraid to take the shot, it’s that you’re not afraid to miss the shot,” Calipari said. “Missing the shot is okay; the sun will come up tomorrow. That’s how Brandon’s mentality is, because he works so hard.”
“Coach trusts in me, and my teammates trust in me to put the ball in my hands in that situation,” Knight said. “I have the confidence to know I can make the shot, but if I miss it, I know I’ll make the next one.”
Kentucky’s season would have been drastically different— and so would UConn’s—had Knight chosen to play for the Huskies. He almost did.
“It was a tough decision,” Knight said. “I liked UConn, but I just felt better off going to Kentucky. A decision like that is going to affect the rest of your life.”
The Fast Break has said all season long that Kentucky was capable of an even deeper NCAA Tournament run than last year’s talent-rich team because of its ability to shoot from three-point range.
Kentucky teams of recent vintage have struggled from behind the arc, but not these Wildcats. They led the SEC in three-point percentage (.400) during the regular season and have surpassed that percentage in the NCAA Tournament. In four games, the Wildcats are shooting .426 from three.
Recall that Calipari told Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook
that he’d perform two back flips if freshman Doron Lamb
shot 35 percent from behind the arc for the season. Well, Lamb wound up leading the SEC at 48 percent, and he’s been even better in the NCAAs (.625, 5-of-8). Jones has made 5-of-7 (.571) and Deandre Liggins
5-of-11 (.455). Darius Miller
(.375) and Knight (.346) have combined for 15 threes-pointers.
ONE AND DONE AGAIN?:
After the season Knight and fellow UK freshman Terrence Jones
could well follow the path Wall, DeMarcus Cousins
, Daniel Orton
and Eric Bledsoe
chose last year and head to the NBA after just one season. But Kentucky will reload again next season with a recruiting class includes three of the top six players in the country as rated by Rivals.com.
Calipari has no problem with breaking in several rookies every year, as long as they’re the equal of Wall, Cousins, Knight and Jones.
“If I had a choice between a talented team and an experienced team, I’m taking talent every time,” Calipari said. “I can try to figure out how to get them to defend, how to play together, all those things.
“… I don’t like the one-and-done rule—I never have—but my choice isn’t to recruit players who aren’t good enough. My choice is to recruit the best players we can get, and then coach them and get them to believe in themselves.”
Though Kentucky has shown a consistent ability to recruit upper-echelon players in Calipari’s tenure, there are some players he wouldn’t mind holding on to for as long as he can.
“I would coach Brandon Knight for the next 15 years,” Calipari said. “I don’t want Brandon Knight to leave. I want him here. But at the end of the day, these guys will have their decisions they have to make. If we’ve all done our jobs, they’ll do what they think is right for themselves and their family.”