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Veterans help turn down year into another typical UK season

by | CBSSports.com
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NEWARK -- This was most certainly not supposed to be the year Kentucky made it to the Final Four. In the tradition of the Wildcats program, one would be hard pressed to rate this group among the 20 best teams in its history. Even since Kentucky's last Final Four in 1998, a strong case can be made that the 1999, 2003, 2005 and definitely last year's team were better than this group of three freshmen and three veterans with virtually no experience.

But this is the group that will be giving Kentucky its first trip to college basketball's promised land in the last 13 years. When the season began, this was supposed to be something akin to a bridge year for Calipari and Kentucky. Last year's team of five first-round NBA Draft picks was upset in the Elite Eight and most believed that next year's squad, which will include four new McDonald's All-Americans, would be the next best chance at a Big Blue redemption. Most Wildcat fans viewed this year's group as a decent mixture of young talent and veterans with heart, but for most the greatest hope was a potential trip to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

Then the season began, and even that view looked optimistic. Hurt by the NCAA's decision to rule Turkish big man Enes Kanter ineligible, the early version of Kentucky looked nothing like a team that could knock on the door of the program's eighth national championship.

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Kentucky was blown out in Maui to the same UConn team it will now meet in the Final Four, with its weak interior exposed in the process. The Wildcats showed that while they could beat any team at home, they could likewise lose to almost any group on the road. The 'Cats went 3-7 in other team's arenas, losing not only to contenders like North Carolina and Florida, but also to also-rans such as Arkansas and Ole Miss.

The loss in Oxford to the Rebels was the season's nadir and also its turning point. In the second half against a team fighting to stay out of the SEC basement, the three veteran UK starters -- Josh Harrellson, Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins -- combined for zero points in the second half as their team withered around them once again. After the game, John Calipari met with the veterans to help them achieve the success they craved.

"I told them that it was their team and that they needed to man up and not just wait for some young guy to do what had to be done," Calipari said.

Mission accomplished. Almost immediately, the threesome became a completely different set of players and Kentucky's play skyrocketed. Miller went from an exceptional talent best known for deferring to those around him to an aggressive, attacking scoring option that creates matchup problems for all defenders. Liggins went from a solid defender to a ferocious attacker of the basketball, capable of harassing the best players in the country into submission. And most impressively, Harrellson went from an able, but ultimately forgettable big man, to an offensive weapon, capable of battling the nation's top players blow for blow.

In the East Regional, Harrellson went up against two of the top five post men in America, with each matchup basically ending in a draw. While Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller both were effective, Harrellson was able to put up numbers that were essentially equivalent, a huge win for Kentucky in both games. The man who played only 88 minutes the entirety of last season became a member of an NCAA All-regional team, as unlikely an accomplishment at the beginning of the season as one could have ever imagined.

After the game, Calipari noted that his freshmen "were fine and played OK," but that the secret to his team's success was the play of these veterans. The lack of buzz around them was particularly what caused this season to originally be met with such low expectations. None of the three were major contributors to last season's team and with them making up half of the thin six-man rotation, the assumption of mediocrity pervaded the team throughout most of the year.

But then after their renewed focus, the Wildcats' play improved. A team that looked to be on the lower end of the Top 25 is now on a 10-game winning streak and has a realistic chance at winning the program's eighth national championship. What was once considered to be a historical afterthought between two massive accumulations of John Calipari talent is now the team that could end up providing him an elusive title.

If one were able to set up a 16-team tournament with the last 16 years of Kentucky teams, it is likely that the 2011 Kentucky group would not make that tournament's Final Four. But it will make this season's Final Four, a testament to a group that never gave up and to improvement of players long ago overlooked. A program with such a rich history is now sending its most unlikely team to the most unlikely Final Four in history.

On the biggest stage next week in Houston, even one of college basketball's biggest bullies, will deep down also be an underdog.

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