The University of Kentucky is the winningest program in the history of college basketball. Its resume boasts 51 NCAA tournament appearances, a 107-46 tournament record, 14 Final Fours and seven National Championships.
Despite the rich tradition, this year’s Wildcat team was not expected to make it this far. After losing five first round NBA draft picks after last season, the Wildcats appeared to be in a rebuilding year.
Don’t tell that to Coach John Calipari, one of, if not the best, recruiter in the country.
Kentucky closed out the regular season strong, winning the SEC Conference Tournament by defeating the Florida Gators. Despite this late season success and a 25-8 record, the tournament committee seemed to snub the Wildcats when the team received a four seed in a stacked East region that featured the number one overall seed and traditional powerhouses such as North Carolina and Syracuse.
The Wildcats narrowly escaped their first game in the tournament on freshman guard Brandon Knight’s game winning layup. Next, the Wildcats avenged their Elite Eight loss in last year’s tournament by beating West Virginia, 71-63, only to matchup against the number one seeded Ohio State Buckeyes in the Sweet Sixteen.
Again, Knight came up big late for the Cats by hitting a game winning jumper with five seconds left to advance his squad to the East regional finals. It was there that the gritty Wildcats held off a late charge by North Carolina to advance the program’s 14th Final Four appearance, and first since they won the National Championship under Tubby Smith in 1998.
After the game, Coach Calipari, reflected back on the Wildcats journey to the Final Four during his post game press conference: “When I saw the board, the seedings, yeah, I am a little bit surprised we’re here. But not because of how my team was playing, I just thought the path to get here would be so ridiculous that we would have to play out of our minds or people would have to get knocked off.”
The Wildcats have played out of their minds during this tournament, led by a pair of highly touted freshmen, Knight and Terrence Jones. To go along with his clutch late game heroics, Knight leads the team in scoring, averaging 17.2 points per game, and chips in with 3.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. Jones is second on the team in scoring at 15.9 points per game and rebounding at 8.7 rebounds per game.
The X-factor on Saturday in Houston, however, will be senior center Josh Harrellson. After not seeing much playing time throughout his first three seasons at UK, the big man has made the most of this NCAA tournament. Harrellson has nearly doubled his scoring average to 15 points in four tournament games, to go with nine rebounds per game.
To capture the eighth National Championship in school history, Kentucky will have to avenge a convincing loss to the University of Connecticut in the Maui Invitational on November 24, 2010.
UK has proven of late that this team is a much different team than the one that took the court early this season. This is evidenced by recent wins over Florida and UNC, both teams that the Cats had lost to early this season.
Kentucky has too much talent and is playing too confidently to lose for a second time this season to UCONN. After what figures to be a close victory over the Huskies, the Wildcats will overwhelm their championship game opponent with their athleticism and length, whether it is the VCU Rams or the Butler Bulldogs.
However, based on Coach Calipari’s track record at UMASS and Memphis, it would be ill-advised for Kentucky to hang this national championship banner with anything other than Velcro (Calipari’s two prior National Championships have been vacated by the NCAA for rules violations).