In its first game without Nerlens Noel, Kentucky will face one of the hottest big men in the SEC.
Jarnell Stokes has posted six consecutive double-doubles for Tennessee, including a 17-point, 10-rebound performance in a win at Vanderbilt Wednesday night. And the Volunteers have won four of their last six, including the last two - both of which were on the road.
Coach Cuonzo Martin says two elements of Stokes' game stand out as the reasons for his improved performance.
"He's rebounding balls out of his area. That's something he didn't do last year, going and get big rebounds. And he's improved his ability to score with his back to the basket," Martin told reporters in Knoxville earlier this week. "It's also the work that he's putting in and I couldn't have said that at the beginning of the season. And when he's making free throws, I just don't see many guys that can stop him (one-on-one)."
Martin says they have started bringing Stokes away from the basket, to get away from double-team situations. And the coach says Stokes now needs to embrace the role of being this team's anchor, the way Martin's former Purdue teammate, Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson, did.
"That's one of the things that Glenn Robinson did at Purdue. It didn't matter who was guarding him, he was a major threat every time down. And the guys around him became better," Martin added.
'78 team celebrates 35th anniversary
UK honored the 1978 national championship team last weekend and Friday marks a noteworthy anniversary for that squad.
On this date, the Wildcats defeated Tennessee 90-77 at Rupp Arena, in a game that had been postponed from January 28 because of an ice storm.
The win snapped a streak of five consecutive victories in the series for the Volunteers, matching their longest winning streak against the Big Blue. Rick Robey's 18 points and James Lee's 17 paced the Cats.
Ten days later, UK beat the Vols in Knoxville, something a Kentucky team had not done since 1972. Former Cat Anderson supports Noel after injury
Kudos to Derek Anderson for paying a visit to Nerlens Noel on the day he learned about his torn ACL. Anderson suffered a season-ending knee injury in 1997, but came back to have a long and successful NBA career. That's no doubt a good story for Noel to hear.
The '97 team lost Anderson on January 18 and struggled to beat a mediocre Vandy team into its first game without "D.A." four days later. But soon, the Wildcats began to reinvent themselves and they made a run to the second of three national title games in a row. That was a much more experienced UK team, led by Ron Mercer, who was a key reserve on the '96 championship squad, but the message of every player contributed a little more is a good one to remember.
Also on that '97 team, a little-used walk-on named Cameron Mills made the most of the opportunity Anderson's injury presented. Two games after Anderson went down, Mills played 16 minutes and scored 12 points in a win at Arkansas and Mills became a key reserve on that team and the title squad that followed the next year.
And in 1976, Kentucky lost starting center Rick Robey to a midseason injury, only to regroup and finish strong, including an NIT championship in the days when the NCAA field was less than half as big as it is now.
Poythress's role set to change
With Noel's injury, Alex Poythress may no longer spend much, if any, time at the '3' spot. And that could serve him well.
"Alex's circumstance is tougher than people realize," noted Sporting News college basketball writer Mike DeCourcy, in a recent appearance on "The Leach Report" radio show. "Being a big small forward in college basketball is very rare. Those players usually have the most difficult transition, having trouble figuring out how to contribute. In reality, he's not really a college small forward - he's a power forward."
With Noel, Kentucky needed Poythress to play some '3,' although less lately than earlier in the season.
While taking a break from the Grammy Awards Sunday night, I tuned in the "Big Ten Basketball and Beyond" show in time to see Hall of Fame college basketball writer Mike DeCourcy (sportingnews.com) and former Ohio State star Jim Jackson discussing the national title picture.
They were asked to participate in an exercise in which each analyst would draft four teams that they thought could win the championship come April. DeCourcy went first and chose Indiana. Jackson countered with Florida and then Michigan State. Back to DeCourcy for Duke and Arizona, followed by Jackson picking Kansas and Gonzaga.
That left one pick and I was wondering whether DeCourcy would go with Louisville or Michigan. But to my surprise, DeCourcy said "the Kentucky Wildcats," noting that the last 10 NCAA champs ranked in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and that the Cats were an under-the-radar team that could well fit into that category by March.
Kentucky gets a chance to give that opinion a shot of validation tonight when it faces Florida on the Gators' home court. This time two years ago, the Cats were struggling through a series of close losses that would lead to a 2-6 road record in SEC play and yet that team made it to the Final Four. Coach John Calipari's latest team is off to a 4-1 road start as it heads to the O-Dome in Gainesville, Fla.
In UK's lone SEC road loss, it surrendered a nine-point halftime lead, the only time in the past 57 games in which the Cats have led at halftime and then lost. My UK radio network partner, Mike Pratt, says the way a team start each half is a big key to success on the road.
"Listen to the scouting report and really get off to a good start, in the first half and the second half. When you're on the road, you don't have the crowd to lift you up. You have to be as focused as you were to start the game. Maybe in high school, you can get away with that. In AAU ball, nobody cares. You gotta bring the same focus and concentration to start the second half as you did the first half," Pratt said on "The Leach Report" radio show.
Before becoming a radio and TV analyst, Pratt was a longtime head coach and assistant at both the college and pro levels and he says the guys at the next level understand how serious a player has to be about the opponent.
"All day long, you gotta be thinking about your opponent, who you're guarding. Know what everybody on the team is doing, so you can help your teammate. In college, you gotta know everything that's going on and that is all learned by focusing. Don't lay around and sleep, play games and watch television but do some thinking about what's going to go that night," Pratt said.
A short walk from where the Cats face the Gators tomorrow is the former Florida basketball venue, affectionately known as "Alligator Alley." Pratt says that was the toughest road environment for the Wildcats when Pratt was a player from 1967-70.
"Gator Alley was a tough place to play. They were good, had Neal Walk and Andy Owens. That was a 5,000-seat place and they had windows on one side where the sun would come in. I think Gator Alley, given the level of talent Florida had at that time, was the most difficult place to play. They were used to it. They practiced in the afternoon (with the sun coming in)," Pratt recalled. "It was a big deal then and the fans were right on top of you--and they were not kind."
Tennessee's Stokely Athletic Center, soon to be demolished, was always a tough arena for the Cats, too. Pratt recalls one game when, as the players were coming from the locker room onto the court, they were pelted with orange slices from the UT fans.
"At Stokely, they always put the football team behind you," Pratt remembered. "That was quite a rivalry, too."
"I think Kentucky is an NCAA tournament team. I think they are a single-digit NCAA tournament team and at the end of the day, they are the second-best team in the SEC and will have a single-digit seed, beyond the range of a eight/nine game."
So says ESPN's "Bracketology" analyst, Joe Lunardi. But in posting his twice-weekly projections of the tournament field for espn.com, he is trying to speculate on how the selection committee would select and seed the field on that given day. That's why Lunardi pegged the Wildcats as a 10-seed in last Friday's report, even though he thinks they'll end up higher.
"I do think they will get on a streak of sorts. I don't think it will be nine out of 10, but I think it will be seven or eight out of 10 and that will gain ground on the field," Lunardi said on "The Leach Report" radio show. "The SEC Tournament has been an event where the Cats have won a lot of games and I think we will see, at the end of the day, that Kentucky is the second-best team in that league. I don't think they are as good as Florida but that doesn't mean they cannot beat them once in two or three meetings. Florida is a legitimate title contender and a one seed and this year, Kentucky is not and maybe it was unfair of us to expect them to still be (as John Calipari's first three teams were) with having to rebuild their roster every year."
If you look at Ken Pomeroy's stats on offensive and defensive efficiency (kenpom.com) or Jeff Sagarin's computer ratings, Kentucky ranks in the nation's top 25. But when it comes to RPI, the Cats are in the 40s. Lunardi says that's a factor of the non-conference schedule - and it's more a result of the mid-majors that Kentucky played instead of the big names it did or did not face.
"Sometimes, you get unlucky in that the softer teams that you play aren't even up to their own standards and there were two or three examples of that on Kentucky's schedule this year. Combine that with a weaker SEC, combine that with Baylor not being Carolina (or Indiana) and you get a cumulative (effect) that impacts Kentucky in the nonconference," he said. "But in fairness, this team might not have been ready to play much better of a schedule in the nonconference. They lost some of those games. The squeaked by Maryland in Brooklyn, lost to Baylor at home, lost at Notre Dame so, this maybe is Kentucky's level. They are just regular good this year instead of a juggernaut."
Coming into February, both Kentucky and North Carolina were at risk of not making the NCAA field, despite their perennial power status. Will their brand names get them into the field if their credentials are suspect? Lunardi doesn't buy it.
"I would say that is false. I think we have seen examples over the year's where a Kentucky, Carolina, Indiana or UCLA - the true blue bloods of the sport - have been left out because of non-achievement. Fundamentally the tournament is about 98 percent sold out already so ticket-selling is not really an issue. The network TV money is the same whether Kentucky is in the field or Northern Kentucky. If over a 10-year period, the sport lost all of its marquee names from postseason play, I suppose that would be problematic but on a year-to-year basis, 95 (to) 100 percent of those programs are in the field so an absence of a Kentucky doesn't make or break the economics of an event any more than a Duke losing in the first round to Lehigh (last year)," he observed. "If anything, because people like us ask the question, they (the committee) might try extra hard to evaluate those teams to make sure they are not giving them a vote based on perception or brand value."
How a team plays down the stretch of the season is no longer part of the official criteria that committee members get in their "nitty gritty" reports on each team it's considering, but Lunardi strongly believes how a team finishes does still matter.
"I think that is a huge factor. It is no longer a formal criteria on the team data sheet - the old record of the last 10 games or the last 12 - because they don't want to punish teams that played a back-loaded schedule, so that is reasonable, " he said, "but I mean, your games are listed chronologically and if there are lots of L's in a month, that is not going to help you. Again, when you get to the last few teams, there are more of them than there are spots so you don't want to give the committee a reason to leave you out."
Lunardi thinks a strong finish by Kentucky could potentially take UK as high as a four or five seed on Selection Sunday.
This week's Signing Day is akin to a national holiday for football fans in the South. And for the first time in a long time - perhaps ever - Big Blue Nation has a widespread case of that fever, thanks to the early work done by new coach Mark Stoops and his staff.
"In just a short time, Mark Stoops has created a little buzz for Kentucky. If he can have any success on the field next year and have something to sell, it'll be a like James Franklin at Vanderbilt. Everyone said, 'Let's see what happens when he gets his teeth kicked in during the season.' But he didn't get his teeth kicked in and he had another good recruiting season," said MrSEC.com editor John Pennington on Friday's "Leach Report" radio show.
Pennington says getting in the door with higher-rated prospects is the first important step in trying to help the UK program make that long-awaited move to a higher level within the toughest league in America.
"It's clear he has a vision and he can pitch it to kids and get them to listen and that's step one," said Pennington. "But if he can get something to show them - this upset, getting to six wins and a bowl game - that's going to take things (to a higher level). "They've gone out and found a guy who can excite prospects and you haven't had that in a while at Kentucky. Just getting in the living room is the first step and he's clearly shown he can do that. And I think putting money into facilities is going to help as well."
Updating UK's efficiency
After wins at Ole Miss and Texas A&M, Kentucky has moved up to third in the SEC in adjusted points per possession, kenpom.com's measure of offensive efficiency that takes into account strength of schedule. Anything over 1.0 is considered good and the Cats are 1.114 for all games. South Carolina and Auburn, UK's opponents this week, rank 10th and 11th in the SEC, respectively.
Florida leads the SEC in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Gators are in an otherworldly realm in league games alone, with an offensive efficiency rating of 1.204 and a defensive rating of 0.778.
Harrow's progress at point
When you're in a line of succession that starts with Derrick Rose and includes the likes of John Wall and Brandon Knight, the bar is always set high for a John Calipari-coached point guard.
Ryan Harrow struggled in his UK debut and then was sidelined for several weeks with a health issue. Since returning, the improvement curve has had a few dips but the Cats have also played some of their best basketball when Harrow has played his best, with last Tuesday's win at Ole Miss being the latest example.
Teammate Brian Long says the ups and downs come with the burden of responsibility that position demands at UK.
"I feel like being the point guard in Coach Cal's system is the hardest thing to do. Watching Marquis (Teague) from the beginning of the year, he struggled and then we couldn't have won in the end without him," Long noted.
Why is the position so hard to master?
"Because you have to control, know when to let go, when to pull back. You have to control everybody. The ball is in your hands 80 percent of the time probably. So you just have more decisions to make than anyone else," Long explained.
Noel's defense about more than blocks
Nerlens Noel is no longer on pace to break Rajon Rondo's freshman record for steals but there's a good chance he'll end up second, as he needs just 19 more to pass John Wall's 66.
That's impressive stat to many but you get the sense his coach is not as overwhelmed by it. Calipari says trying to steals can lead to cheap fouls, as we saw at Ole Miss.
"If there's a deflection and you can get a steal, great," Calipari said, "but I don't want (him) playing to steal."
Polson staying a factor
Jarrod Polson's junior season started with a bang when he came off the bench to play a key role in the Cats' win over Maryland. And 20 games into the season, he remains a key player in coach Cal's rotation.
Calipari says it's all about "energy" for the junior from Nicholasville, KY.
"He just plays with energy and when you have a bunch of guys playing tentative - because of how they're playing (individually) - you put him in the game and he really stands out, because he is going to play hard every time out," Calipari said on the UK-IMG Network pregame show Tuesday night.
So who do you like in the Super Bowl between San Francisco and Baltimore?
When we put that question to former UK and NFL star Marty Moore, he didn't hesitate in his response.
"San Fran. The way (quarterback Colin) Kaepernick is going and their defense, I just feel like they're going to win. Coming back from 17 down to win a game, they've shown a lot of resiliency. I really like their team right now," Moore said in a recent appearance on "The Leach Report" radio show. (Moore and other former NFL players from Kentucky are hosting a charity Super Bowl event this weekend and details will follow at the bottom of this post).
Moore played in two Super Bowls for the New England Patriots and they won the second one over St. Louis in 2002. At Kentucky, Moore set tackling records and helped lead the Wildcats to the 1993 Peach Bowl.
And given his experience on that side of the ball, you're probably not surprised to learn that he gives UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart a thumbs up for going in search of defensive-minded head coach to lead the program in a new direction.
"We've had this offensive mindset for a decade or more and in the SEC, you have to play defense. You have to be a defensive-minded guy to try and stop some of these teams. To be able to win games at the end, we have to play defense," Moore said. "If you recruit an athletic defensive kid, you can always find a spot for him on offense. Just being able to scheme and do things that will keep us in games, I think that's going to be something we haven't had in a long time at Kentucky. I'm looking forward to seeing some of the changes he makes with the personnel that we have to make us competitive in the fall."
Stoops is off to a great start in upgrading the recruiting efforts at UK and Moore knows that is where the turnaround in his alma mater's gridiron fortunes will start.
"I like the fact that there are a couple of former players on the staff. We gotta win back the state and bringing in the former players helps in that regard. Getting the in-state recruits is key and having the ties (to Florida, Ohio, etc), that helps as well," he noted. "It's a different kind of recruiting philosophy. Change was needed and I'm looking forward to seeing how spring practice goes."
Moore helping host Super Bowl watch party for charity
How would you like to watch the 49ers-Ravens matchup in the Super Bowl alongside guys who played in the big game?
That's what the seventh annual "Party with the Pros" event at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Lexington is all about. Moore and other former NFL players who suited up for college programs here in Kentucky will be there to mingle with fans, as well as raise money for a good cause. Proceeds will support Visually Impaired Preschool Services.
"It's a fun, nice event and you can enjoy the night and don't have anything to clean up," Moore said, adding that kids may not remember these guys from their playing days but they can still enjoy hearing their stories. "There's a lot of Super Bowl rings that float around there. The kids really enjoy it. We're old-timers but we wear our jerseys and tell war stories and I think it's a fun event that supports a great cause."
Tickets are $45 for adults, $25 for children and can be purchased at the door on Sunday. To get more information, check out partywiththeprosky.com.
Until last season, it had been 14 years since a Kentucky player moved into the top five of the school record books for blocks in a single season. Anthony Davis obliterated the record, with 103 more blocks (186) than the previous best. And now Nerlens Noel, through 18 games, is only eight blocked shots away from having the second-best season ever in that category.
Sam Bowie, who set the single-season mark in 1981 when he blocked 80 shots for UK, says shot-blocking skill is not the only similarity between Noel and Davis.
"When you talk about Anthony Davis, he is a unique kid because it is very unusual to find a kid that is as talented and as respectful as he is. He came across to me every time that I met him, he would always say 'Mr. Bowie' and I would say that my name is Sam. He never knew that he was a superstar and he never knew that he was a franchise player. He played every play like he was trying to make the team and when you get that kind of combination, with the talent and the skill level that he has, it's a gift - because many times the superstar knows he is the superstar and realizes that he doesn't have to work as hard as the others because he realizes that he is going to get all the minutes and all the time that he wants," Bowie observed in an interview on "The Leach Report" radio show. "Anthony, that was his biggest asset. He thought he was just another guy on the roster and then this kid Nerlens, I watch him game after game and I am almost going to put him (Noel) in the same category.
"It's not really fair to put him in the same category as Anthony, but I put him in the same category in the sense that he is the first one on the floor for loose balls. He does all the things that a normal superstar does not do and he is as happy and as elated after a ballgame when he scores nine points, seven rebounds and four blocks. He doesn't have to have numbers to dominate a ballgame and I think that is one thing Cal would agree with me, that both those kids are made out of the same mold."
And Bowie sees John Calipari being cut from the same cloth as the coaches who had the best understanding of what the UK program and Big Blue Nation is all about.
"I had never met Calipari personally prior to him being hired by the University of Kentucky. I had been to basketball functions and been in banquet halls and things of that nature around him but to actually meet him, I had never done that. One day, I got a phone call from him and he said he wanted to meet me and he wanted to sit down and talk. His whole deal is this - and it's real simple, he means this and it's not propaganda - he would tell me, 'Bowie, this program will go on regardless if there is another Sam Bowie and this program will be strong regardless if I am the head coach here,' " Bowie said. "He has really embraced the past without naming names and I am sure the public knows where I am going with this situation, but in the past that always hasn't been the case where former players, former coaches still felt like they were a part of the program and with Calipari, he is the first to tell you that he is the blessed one that the university has hired him and not what he gives the university but what the university gives him."
Halftime lead streak ends at Alabama
When Kentucky lost at Alabama on Tuesday after leading at halftime, a long streak came to an end.
The Wildcats had won 53 consecutive games in which they took a lead into the second half, stretching back to a February 1, 2011 loss at Ole Miss.
LSU's press a test
Taking care of the basketball will be a key for the Cats in tomorrow's game against LSU.
First-year coach Johnny Jones' press is generating more than 10 steals per game, which ranks fourth in the nation. In their win over Texas A&M Wednesday night, the Tigers had 19 steals (eight of those by Christian County High School product Anthony Hickey).
And LSU is tied with Missouri for the SEC in offensive rebounds per game, at almost 15.
Last Saturday, the game preview story in a local paper in Auburn contained an interesting quote from one of head coach Tony Barbee's players. He said Auburn's post-Christmas improvement coincided with the players understanding they needed to play harder game in and game out, adding that since Barbee didn't have to "coach effort," he could instead focus on the Xs and Os.
After Kentucky overcame a rowdy crowd and that improved Auburn team with a 22-point road win, I asked John Calipari about that quote and how it applied to his young team.
"Exactly what we're talking about," Calipari answered in the postgame interview on the UK-IMG radio network. "I said (to my staff) prior to the game, 'I don't want to coach as much in this game. I want the players to make calls. We're going to let them know what we want run but I want them talking to each other more. I want to do less.' It becomes grueling as a coach when you're coaching effort and you're coaching every bounce of the ball. I'm not going to do it. One, it doesn't work over the long haul. At some point, this has got to be their team and they've got to run with it. I think we're getting closer but we've got another tough one (at Alabama)."
This was one of the Wildcats' most complete performances of the season, as they out-shot and out-rebounded Auburn.
"We just needed to start seeing the fruits of the labor," Calipari noted. "You got to start having some hope that we're going to be fine."
And if the Wildcats can continue their improvement on the defensive end of the court, they might be better than "fine."
SI.com's Luke Winn posted an article this week about the relationship of defensive efficiency stats to postseason success. Looking back over the past decade of those numbers, Winn notes that "only five teams ranked worse than 25th in defensive efficiency have made the Final Four and only two of those were outside the top 50 (VCU in '11 and Marquette in '03)."
Given that kenpom.com currently ranks UK 20th in DE, albeit against a softer schedule than last year, it bodes well for the current Cats to peak in March, provided we see the same kind of passion to guard opponents that we saw at Auburn (which will be coupled with the shot-blocking prowess of Nerlens Noel).
"They're not as far along as I thought they would be. Defensively, I don't see them fighting every possession like that team did last year but I saw signs of it when I watched the tape of Auburn game," observed ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes on Monday's "Leach Report" radio show. "As a coach, you either fix the problem or you accept the problem and he (Calipari) is not going to accept the problem. The only way they have a chance to make a run in March is to become a really, really good defensive team - and the pieces are there."
Dykes noted that Noel probably leads the nation in combined blocks and steals and is capable of being the engine that drives aBig Blue resurgence.
"I think that's who Kentucky builds its team around. I think he's got a motor and a toughness and a mean streak about him that this team needs. To me, he's the one guy that consistently shows it and it needs to be infectious. He needs to be the leader of this team and let everybody else feed off him," said Dykes.
"I think they showed some fight and some toughness (at Auburn). Not 40 minutes but I saw more of it than I did in the Tennessee win," he continued. "They're far from a finished product. They still give up too many straight-line drives and guys get to the rim on them. I think the key versus Alabama is to not turn the ball over. They can really pressure you. One thing Alabama doesn't have is size inside and Kentucky can take advantage of that. I think there's a lot of pressure on Alabama's perimeter game to come through."
With national signing day on the horizon early next month, these are busy times for new Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops and his staff.
There are times when recruiting is a face-to-face game but offensive coordinator Neal Brown says other means of contacting prospects are a big part of the job.
"It's all about relating to the kids and there's not a whole of phone communication. It's more Twitter and Facebook. You've got to communicate your message through those media, through videos or pictures," Brown said on "The Leach Report" radio show. "You've got to communicate your message in a variety of ways to get it through and they have a short attention span, so you better grab them within the first 30 seconds or so. It's still about relationships and getting them on campus. I think we have the top city in the SEC, our campus is beautiful and the fan support is off the charts. It's our job to engage them (prospects) early, relate to them on their level and I think we can get that done."
Auburn finding shooting touch
I don't know what exactly Santa Claus delivered to the Auburn basketball team but it had something to do with their collective shooting eye.
At Christmas, the Tigers were 5-6, having just lost at home to Winthrop. Since, Tony Barbee's club has won three of five games with the only losses coming against Illinois (by two in Chicago) and at Arkansas (in double overtime).
During that five-game stretch, an Auburn team shooting 43.5 percent from the field for the season has hit 48 percent or better in three of those games and has been 50 percent or better in each of the last two. And the Tigers are averaging eight three-pointers per game over this five-game stretch versus an average of six per game in the previous 11 outings.
Twice in the last five games (and three times for the season), Auburn has made 11 3s in a single game.
UK a second-half team on the glass
Kentucky had one of its better rebounding performances in the win over a physical Tennessee team, after having been out-boarded in the previous two games.
But there's one rebounding stat that trended the Cats' way for a long time now.
Maryland is the only team to out-rebound UK in the second half of a game.
And here's a stat that speaks to the importance of starting fast: UK is 11-0 this season when leading at halftime and finished with a 32-0 mark in that department last year.
The last time the Cats lost a game in which they led at halftime was on February 1, 2011, when a 35-34 lead turned into a last-second loss at Ole Miss. That's a streak of 51 consecutive games.
Ford on Oklahoma State point guard
One item that didn't make it into our story on former Cat Travis Ford's reflections on the 1993 Final Four team was his assessment of Marcus Smart.
The rookie point guard has been universally praised for his play through the first half of the season and Ford says he is a "special player."
"He is kind of a throwback, an old school player. His greatness comes from playing hard and making everyone around him a better player. He is all about winning, that is all he cares about. He doesn't care about how many points he scores or things like that, he just cares about winning. Every drill we do, he wants to be the best at. He wants his team to win," Ford continued. "He leads us in so many different categories - steals, assists, rebounding and he can score the basketball. He is a special player, there is not many that come along and can affect the game in so many areas and he plays point guard for us at six-four, so he is a big presence for a point guard but his attitude and work ethic is unmatched."
Final Four teams get a special spot in the hearts of Big Blue fans and it's hard to believe it's been 20 years since the 1993 Kentucky teams took Wildcat fans on an incredible 30-4 run.
It had only been five years since the last Final Four trip when probation hit the UK program in 1989. At that point, no one knew how long it might take to get Kentucky's program back to its customary elite level.As it turned out, not nearly as long as many thought.
Fueled by "The Unforgettables," the '92 Cats came within one infamous Christian Laettner shot of returning to college basketball's promised land. But a year later, they took the next step.
Oklahoma State coach and Madisonville, Ky., native Travis Ford was the point guard for that club and I recently asked him if the players on the team at that time were able to realize how much that season meant to the UK fan base.
"Yes, we did," Ford acknowledged. "We felt the expectations and excitement around the basketball team and it was not easy to live up to expectations but I think that team really did it. We made it to the Final Four with the record we had and only losing four games that season and winning the SEC and things like that it was an exciting year for everybody.
"It's been a long time. It was a lot of fun games and a lot hard work, but a lot of fond memories, a lot of great memories and great teammates," he added. "It was an absolutely enjoyable year. We had a really good team, a lot of big games and us making it to the Final Four is always a dream of any college basketball player."
An 11-0 start sparked those high expectations and it included an 88-68 rout of rival Louisville in a matchup of teams ranked in the top 10. The Cats' leader, Jamal Mashburn, was sensational, scoring 27 points and grabbing seven rebounds in 31 minutes at Freedom Hall.
A dose of "Memorial Magic" handed the Wildcats their first setback (101-86) on January 13 at Vanderbilt but they responded with six straight wins, before a seven-point loss at Arkansas - at a time when the Hogs were battling UK for the title of the SEC's best.
The only other loss on the way to the Final Four came at Tennessee in late February, on an unusual four-point play. But the Cats got a healthy dose of payback in the SEC Tournament with a 101-40 rout at Rupp Arena.
From there, UK's closest call was in the next SEC Tourney game, an 11-point revenge win over Arkansas. In the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament, UK won by margins of 44, 21, 34 and 25 and took the role of favorite into the Final Four at the New Orleans Superdome.
Michigan, in year two of the "Fab Five," edged Kentucky in overtime 81-78 - a game which saw the Cats lose starting guard Dale Brown to second-half injury and Mashburn to fouls. I will always believe Kentucky would have won the title if not for those unfortunate breaks and as you might expect, Ford agrees.
"We have talked about that often. There were two things that happened. Dale Brown was off to his best game of his career and was diving for a loose ball and ran his shoulder into one of the media tables and he was out of the game while he was having an incredible game. Then, obviously when Jamal fouled out, that made it tough for the rest of us but if he hadn't fouled out, I think it would have been a completely different story," Ford said.
What does he remember most about that season?
"I think the first thing that stands out is that as a team, we all got along extremely well. We were close and when your best player is Jamal Mashburn and your hardest working player is the nicest guy on the team and everyone loved him, that really stands out," Ford noted. "Coming out of the SEC Tournament, winning the SEC Tournament and then going into the NCAA and how well we were playing going into the Final Four and the margin of victory, it really stands out."
Ford recalled how hard head coach Rick Pitino pushed them to reach their goals and how good it felt to get there. Those lessons helped shape the kind of coach Ford became.
"There is a lot of things that I was taught by Coach Pitino that I still use today. First and foremost is how hard I coach at it and how hard my assistant coaches go at it," Ford said. "I try and tell my players, what I put them through, I have been through it and more playing for Coach Pitino."
Ford's current Oklahoma State team stands at 11-3 and was ranked in the top 25 for much of the first two months of the season.
"It is not how you start, it is how you finish. And we have extremely tough teams in the Big 12. We have some really, really good basketball teams in this league and some tough places to play," said Ford. "We play six guys and three freshmen in our top six, so we are a relatively young basketball team but we play hard, play great defense but still have a lot of room for improvement."
If you look only at points per game, Texas A&M ranks as one of the SEC's better defensive teams. But when the metric is points-per-possession, the Aggies are in a three-way tie for 11th with Vanderbilt and Arkansas, giving up just under one point per possession (0.96).
Kentucky, by the way, is tied for second with Ole Miss at 0.86, just two-hundredths or a point behind league leader Florida. Those three teams also rank in the league's top five in offense on the PPP scale, with the Gators ranking first in that category, too.
Texas A&M trivia
Today's interesting trivia note...
Kentucky was 64-10 all-time in the University of Kentucky Invitational Tournament (1953-89) with only three of those losses coming on the tourney's first night.
One of those losses was inflicted by Texas A&M, in the most recent meeting between these two programs. It was December 1978 when A&M scored a 73-69 victory.
Cats need more out of inside game
"A work in progress" is how coach Calipari often refers to this Kentucky team. It was the same way two years ago, when it was sometime in February before the Wildcats found their best way to play.
UK radio network analyst Mike Pratt says a consistent low-post game would be a big help.
"I think you say 'we've got a slasher in Archie (Goodwin) and we've got a couple of shooters - if they're on - in Wiltjer and Mays. The missing piece is that balance of inside-out. Most teams aren't capable of having that but I think Kentucky is capable, if you can get some back-to-the-basket or 8-to-10-footers out of the big guys. Then, you really put the pressure on the defense," Pratt observed on "The Leach Report" radio show.
"Somewhere down the line, for this team to reach its full potential, whatever that may be, they're going to have to develop some in-the-paint offense, where you can score without (relying on) put-backs."
Pratt on Cauley-Stein's free throws
Pratt gives kudos to Willie Cauley-Stein for the extra work he's been doing in practice to improve his free-throw shooting. But when it comes to correcting mechanical flaws in a shot, that is hard to accomplish within a season.
"I think you can help it, you can make people a little bit better, but to become a great foul shooter, you're going to have to work on your whole form. You find a rhythm, a way you shoot the ball. All those things you learn from repetition, so you don't think about it. That's a project. Willie can gain some confidence but can he become a 70-percent shooter (without offseason work), no," Pratt said. "They tried to change the structure on Wilt Chamberlain's free throws and it never worked. They say it became a psychological thing."
Brando says UK needs confident Mays
Earlier this week, you read here about the praise heaped on Ryan Harrow by Tim Brando of CBS.
Brando cited the growing confidence of Harrow and he said that's what Kentucky needs to see from Julius Mays, too.
"I think he's a guy that can help them but he's got to be confident to take that shot when it's there," Brando said.