LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- At one time, this was supposed to be his city.
Marquis Teague was destined to play in the Yum! Center in Louisville. His father, Shawn, was coached by Rick Pitino back in the day at Boston University and the young point guard made no secret of his desire to be a Louisville Cardinal. In fact, in July of 2009, Teague told me it was just a matter of time before he pulled the trigger and gave Pitino a verbal commitment. But at the 11th-hour of the process, on April 22, 2010, Teague opted to stick a dagger in Pitino's program, opting to play for rival Kentucky down the road in Lexington.
This was the next great point guard that John Calipari would coach. He had Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans down in Memphis and John Wall and Brandon Knight his first two years at Kentucky. Teague was different than Wall and Knight, not nearly an explosive as Wall and not the shooter of Knight -- but quicker than both.
Teague struggled out of the gate and many wondered whether he was the answer. This team had everything -- a defensive force in Anthony Davis, a relentless, athletic forward in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a shooter in Doron Lamb and a talented yet enigmatic forward in Terrence Jones. Senior Darius Miller had also established himself as one of the ultimate "glue guys."
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Teague was the key. Everyone knew it -- and there were times early in the season that the Wildcats were winning despite him. He was making ill-advised decisions, having difficulty making uncontested shots from the perimeter and struggling to learn how to run this team, one that had more weapons than he could have ever imagined having to keep content. Even as recently as in the SEC tournament, Teague was ineffective. He was 0 for 12 from the field in games against LSU and the SEC championship game loss to Vanderbilt.
"It's been tough," Teague admitted. "It wasn't the year I expected."
But Teague showed that he's the X-factor for this Wildcats team on Saturday night in a 87-71 victory over Iowa State. When he plays as he did against the Cyclones, it's difficult to envision a scenario where Kentucky gets knocked out of the NCAA tournament.
"If he plays like that, they're going to win the championship," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said after the game. "No doubt."
Teague had admittedly his best all-around game of the season. His older 'bro agreed. He finally looked like the guy who came into college as the top-rated point guard in the country, finishing with a career-high 24 points. However, it wasn't only his scoring. It was how, and when, he put the ball in the basket. He pushed the ball in transition, he made perimeter shots -- and he also found a way to keep his teammates well-fed while delivering seven assists.
"It seems like they are letting him play a lot faster," said his older brother, Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague. "A lot of time they've got him walking the ball up the floor, but now they're pushing it -- and that fits his style."
That's why Jeff Teague told his younger brother to choose Kentucky over Louisville in the first place.
"That was the school he wanted to go to," Jeff said. "When I told him that I thought he should go to Kentucky, he committed to them right after that. I felt it was the perfect spot for point guards. Nothing against Louisville, but I've never seen a point guard come out of Louisville. I really think he took it to heart."
"That's true," Marquis added. "He was why I chose Kentucky. He had watched John Wall at Madison Square Garden and told me how much freedom they gave him."
But Teague hasn't enjoyed the same luxury that Wall was afforded in his brief time in Lexington and it's been visibly frustrating. He was looking over his shoulder early in the season, whether it was in fear of being pulled off the court by John Calipari or just concern about feeling the verbal wrath of his intense head coach.
"I didn't understand it and he didn't, either," Jeff said.
"It was tough," Teague said. "I never really felt comfortable."
Teague finally looked at peace with his role on this team Saturday night, utilizing his blazing speed to drive the court for easy layups, finding his teammates for wide-open baskets and even displaying leadership abilities by chatting up his teammates on the court.
Teague led four players in double-figures. Miller scored 19, Lamb finished with 16, Davis had 15 points and a dozen boards and Jones went for eight points and 11 rebounds. The Wildcats won by 16 points despite a lackluster performance from Kidd-Gilchrist, who had just two points and seven rebounds in 33 minutes.
Four minutes into the second half, Kentucky was in a dogfight with Royce White and the Cyclones. The score was tied at 42, but the Wildcats proceeded to go on a 22-4 run to blow the game open. Teague was instrumental in the spurt, scoring six points and assisting on a pair of Miller trifectas.
"We all knew he could play like this, but they have so many guys and someone had to take the hit," Jeff Teague said. "With all those big guys and the wings, it was him."
"I'm finally confident now," Marquis added. "I was thinking too much, trying to force shots and not making the easy play."
Now Teague and his teammates move on and will have an opportunity for redemption with a matchup against the one team that knocked the Wildcats off in the regular-season: Indiana.
"I remember The Shot," Teague said of Christian Watford's game-winning 3-pointer in Bloomington. "How can we forget it? We see it all the time on commercials. Everyone won't let us get away from it."
But Teague and his teammates are quick to point out this is a different Kentucky group than the one that lost to the Hoosiers on Dec. 10.
"We're not the same team," he said.
Teague isn't the same player.