Posted on: April 5, 2011 12:35 am
Edited on: April 5, 2011 12:38 am

Final Four locales lead to poor shooting games

Posted by Matt Jones

HOUSTON --- Walking into a football stadium and seeing 75,000 people in one place for a basketball game is an impressive sight. With such a large mass of humanity in one place, a collective energy pervades the building and immediately signals to all who are in attendance that an important event is about to take place. From an aesthetic standpoint, it makes the Final Four a tremendous experience.

However as Monday night showed us once again, the football stadium Final Four all too often also produces horrific basketball. The numbers from UConn’s 53-41 victory over Butler suggest it was the worst offensive game in Final Four history. Butler shot 18.8 percent from the field, the lowest percentage of any team in any championship game in tournament history. It was also the lowest shooting percentage of any team in this year’s tournament, obliterating the futility record set by St. Peter’s in shooting 29 percent versus Purdue. UConn may have won the game, but it too contributed to the string of horrendous bricks, going 1-11 from the three point line and becoming the first team to win an NCAA title shooting less than 10 percent from behind the arc.

But the awful shooting didn’t start on Monday. In the Kentucky-UConn game on Saturday night, the Huskies went 1-12 from three point land and won, leading to a preposterous 2-23 total for the weekend. Kentucky shot only 33 percent from the field for the game and went 2-12 from three point land in the first half, even though virtually every one of the looks was completely wide open. In fact, the entire Final Four was one consistent parade of missed open three pointers, leading to a brand of eye-bleeding basketball that does little to sell the college game while played on its biggest stage.

Believe me, I understand the reason these games are played in such massive structures. With 75,000 fans on Saturday and another 70,000 on Monday, the NCAA set a new attendance record for the Final Four and produced not only a large stream of revenue, but also an atmosphere to compete with the biggest sporting events in the United States. So arguing that the NCAA should go back to something resembling a regular arena for the Final Four is unrealistic and akin to arguing that “student-athletes” should miss less class during March.

However we should acknowledge that what we see at the Final Four is not the same game that is played throughout the regular season or in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament. A game in a football stadium leads to a shooting environment that is unlike anything a player will otherwise see. Behind the basket is simply open space, often filled with temporary stands that dont raise immediately as in virtually every arena in America. With no real backdrop to create a context, the basketball goal seems to almost be floating in space. This will often cause even a great shooter to have issues with depth perception that in many cases, he has never previously seen. 

To understand exactly what is occurring, imagine standing in a desert, with no trees, mountains or buildings to help your eyes and brain conceptualize how far a particular object is from you at a given point. Absent the context around you, one is generally guessing to determine distances from a given point, an effect that is exaggerated to an even greater degree in a split-second situation. This occurs on a much smaller level in these football environments, often interfering with the regular routine of a shooter who is used to a regular context in the average basketball arena. Add the additional oddity of a raised court that hovers over the fans in the first couple of rows, and the difference from the players’ norm is real.

The dome effect has never been studied scientifically, but watch any game in such an environment and its power can be proven anecdotally. Over three games in Houston I witnessed not only poor shooting, but more truly bad misses far from their target than I have seen in any games all year. When those games are being had by the four teams playing for a national championship, the effect is even more striking.

The football stadium effect is only going to grow as the NCAA continues to put the Final Four in larger and larger venues. While domes are not new, some of the older buildings would put up large drapes to cover up some sections, which often had a secondary effect of making the arena a bit easier for shooters. Now the NCAA’s policy is go as big as it can get, meaning 75,000 fans will be the norm, not just a one-year attendance burst. That does lead to an amazing show and makes the Final Four experience one to remember. But the basketball game ends up being radically different, and as was the case on Monday night, often brutal to watch.

Category: NCAAB
Posted on: April 3, 2011 5:07 pm
Edited on: April 3, 2011 5:09 pm

Season Wrap-Up: Kentucky

Posted by Matt Jones


It was a strange season for the Kentucky Wildcats, one in which the team turned around its worst SEC road record in nearly two decades into an unexpected Final Four appearance. John Calipari’s team struggled at various points in the year to find any success away from Rupp Arena, but by the time March came around, the Wildcats mixed a surprising conglomeration of three talented freshmen and three wily old veterans into a winning formula. 


On Saturday night, the ride ended against UConn, as the Wildcats reverted back to some old bad habits against Jim Calhoun’s team. But that doesn’t change the overall successful nature of the season and the amazing run that Calipari once again orchestrated. In early February many longtime UK followers, myself included, wandered aloud why this year’s Kentucky team had seemed to create such a widespread malaise throughout the Big Blue fanbase. The always passionate UK fans seemed a bit tired of the season and the frustrating nature of this team. But that same group changed everything in just under two months, culminating in a packed house in Reliant Stadium on Saturday night, with blue once again predominating the crowd.


The season also once again proved just what an under-appreciated coach John Calipari truly is. While praised (or questioned) for his recruiting abilities, Calipari is rarely given significant credit for his ability to get the best out of his teams. With this group, Kentucky reached heights that no one imagined and a team with far less talent than what he had last year, or will have next year, cut down the nets in the East regional.


The Wildcats didn’t however beat the Huskies for five reasons:


--- Brandon Knight wasn’t Brandon Knight: The point guard who showcased a dazzling array of skills, but also a cool demeanor that seemed infallible, was simply not himself against the Huskies. He shot 6-23 from the field, but more importantly, did not play with the same precision to which Kentucky had grown accustomed. He attempted to force the offense way too often and except for a quick burst early in the second half, his shots were usually way off target. The Wildcats will rarely win when Brandon Knight is not a star and he was not a star on Saturday.


--- The Veterans Left the Building: Junior Deandre Liggins was very effective on the defensive end against Kemba Walker, but otherwise Kentucky’s three grizzled veterans retreated back to their pre-March selves. Josh Harrellson and Darius Miller missed shots that they normally finished and Liggins seemed wholly unable to penetrate and finish at the rim as he had become accustomed to doing. The great stories of the rise of the veterans was a theme of March, but it disappeared against the Huskies.


--- Free Throws:  Shoot 4-12 in a big game from the free throw line, and your chances of winning are slim. Kentucky missed crucial free throws down the stretch, including two big misses by Terrence Jones and Liggins in the closing two minutes. Free throws are John Calipari’s achilles heel and even with a team that had been successful all year from the charity stripe, it bit them late.


--- Fatigue: I never thought fatigue would be an issue for Kentucky and it had not shown up as a problem all season. But because of an odd stretch in the last ten minutes of the second half, the six-man rotation of Kentucky was gassed. With no stoppage of play and thus no television timeout for a six-minute stretch, Kentucky’s players energy was zapped and they made poor decisions on the offensive end. That gave UConn a lead that it would never relinquish.


--- Poor Final Play:  Deandre Liggins made a big shot against North Carolina in the East regional and hit a huge three to cut the deficit late against UConn. But, there probably was a better final look that Kentucky could have had at the basket with its final shot, than a contested three pointer by Liggins in the final moments. UK went far riding Brandon Knight and his decision making ability. But the Wildcats probably wish they had that play to do over again.


What’s Next for Kentucky


Next season is the year that gives John Calipari his best chance to win a national championship. Many of the pieces from this year’s team will return. Darius Miller and Deandre Liggins should come back to provide senior leadership. Freshman Terrence Jones is likely headed to the NBA draft, but guards Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb still have decisions to make. 


But the key to next year’s success is a recruiting class that may (unbelievably) be John Calipari’s best of his career. Four McDonald’s All Americans will come to Lexington, each of whom are immensely talented. The group of Anthony Davis, Michael Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer could be one of the five best recruiting classes in college basketball history. With that group, Kentucky has its best chance to cut down the nets in over a decade and the pressure will be on to have a monster season.


Either way, Kentucky basketball is back among the top 5 programs in America and as long as John Calipari is the coach, they will stay in that position. Many around Kentucky will lament the fact that they were so close to championship No. 8 and fell short, but the chances will be there in the future, the best of which may be next season.




Category: NCAAB
Posted on: April 2, 2011 1:16 pm
Edited on: April 2, 2011 1:21 pm

Keys to victory: Connecticut vs. Kentucky

Posted by Jeff Borzello



  • G- Kemba Walker (23.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.5 apg)
  • G- Jeremy Lamb (11.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg)
  • F- Roscoe Smith (6.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg)
  • F- Tyler Olander (1.5 ppg, 1.8 rpg)
  • C- Alex Oriakhi (9.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 1.6 bpg)


  • G- Brandon Knight (17.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 4.2 apg)
  • G- DeAndre Liggins (8.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.5 apg)
  • F- Darius Miller (11.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 44.9% 3pt)
  • F- Terrence Jones (15.8 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.9 bpg)
  • C- Josh Harrellson (7.6 ppg, 8.8 rpg)

Three keys for Connecticut:

- Guarding the perimeter: Kentucky shoots the 3-pointer as well as anyone in the country, with multiple players capable of knocking down the outside shot.

- Getting Jorts in foul trouble: This one falls on Alex Oriakhi. The big man has struggled offensively at times, but getting Josh Harrellson in foul trouble would allow the Huskies to dominate the glass.

- Role players: Kemba is a constant. The nation’s best point guard will get his 25-30 points no matter if his shot is falling or not. Players like Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier will need to step up.

Connecticut’s X-factor: Shabazz Napier: Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb have been two of the better players during the NCAA tournament, but Napier has been an underrated asset. He comes in the game and runs the show, allowing Walker to play off the ball. Napier is also a lockdown defender who pushes the tempo.

Three keys for Kentucky:

- Kemba Walker: UConn can’t win without Walker playing well. If DeAndre Liggins can keep Walker on the perimeter and force him to take jumpers, Kentucky will win.

- Keeping UConn out of transition: The Huskies are at their best when they’re running and scoring fast-break points. Kentucky has to limit turnovers and make it a halfcourt game.

- Rebounding: Connecticut is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country; Kentucky has to keep Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith off the glass.

Kentucky’s X-factor: Doron Lamb: Lamb hasn’t scored in double figures in the NCAA tournament, but his shooting could be a key against Connecticut. Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier will focus on harassing Brandon Knight, potentially freeing Lamb for open outside jumpers. He needs to knock them down.

Photo: US Presswire

More NCAA tournament coverage
Category: NCAAB
Posted on: March 30, 2011 10:17 am
Edited on: March 31, 2011 10:40 am

Final Four teams by the numbers

Math in basketball?

Posted by Eric Angevine

There are so many ways to look at the four teams that emerged from the regional sites to make it to Houston this week. Some of us are emotionally involved with an alma mater that has won through. Some simply enjoy the spectacle of ANY four teams getting to the semifinals. Others (who may need to be investigated for paranormal cranial activity) still have a decent-looking bracket alive. Others simply want to know the line so they can wager appropriately.

In basketball, more and more, there are the stat-heads. Even those of us (like me) who view the game with the starry eyes of the hopelessly hoops-addicted are coming around to tempo-free statistics as a useful tool for evaluating and even predicting team play. Today, I thought we'd look at some of those numbers side-by-side for the four regional champions.

We'll be using Kenpom.com's latest rankings, broken down into Adjusted Offense (AdjO), Adjusted Defense (AdjD), Effective Field Goal percentage (eFG) and a few interesting stats that might allow us to glean a slight edge one way or the other like point distribution as a percentage of total points scored (two pointers, three pointers and free throws), experience and effective height.  

Butler vs. VCU

Team Seed KP rank AdjO AdjD eFG 2Pdist 3Pdist FTdist Exp Height
Butler Bulldogs No. 8 38 112.7 95.5 50.9 47.0% 31.5% 21.4% 2.02 yrs  +0.4
VCU Rams No. 11 49 113.3 97.7 51.2 43.8% 35.4% 20.7% 2.17 yrs +0.4

On paper, this gives the Rams the offensive edge and the Bulldogs the defensive edge. The rams are shooting better while taking more of their shots from outside. The two-point distribution and the free throw distribution correlate pretty well for both teams. VCU has slightly more experience, but both teams start quality seniors, as we know from watching them. This is too close to call by the numbers, as it probably should be by this point in the season.

UConn vs. Kentucky

Team Seed KP rank AdjO AdjD eFG 2Pdist 3Pdist FTdist Exp Height
UConn Huskies No. 3 11 117.2 92.2 48.5 54.5% 24.4% 21.1% 0.95 yrs  +3.4
Kentucky Wildcats No. 4 4 119.1 91.0 52.7 50.8% 29.2% 19.9% 1.16 yrs +1.6

Lots of interesting numbers here. According to these numbers, UConn is the more efficient team on offense and defense. Despite Kemba Walker's famous step-back jumper, the Huskies rely on the inside game far more than do the Wildcats. Probably because they're so much bigger (there's the loss of Enes Kanter coming back to bite UK again). And as much as we hear about Kentucky's freshmen, UConn is far more youth-driven than the Wildcats in reality. On the even bigger stage of the Final Four, don't be surprised if heady play by UK's upperclassmen turns the tide. They've already beat the nation's most complete team, Ohio State, just to get here.

In truth, none of this tells us who will win. Even tempo-free stats didn't predict a VCU-Butler semifinal. All we can do is use these numbers to decipher some tendencies. As we watch the games on Saturday, we'll be more prepared to assess where each team's relative strengths and weaknesses lie, and that can only enhance our enjoyment of the real-life, real-time contests we'll be watching.

**Note: as a couple of readers noticed, I left VCU's numbers in a couple of spots when copying and pasting the code for the table. The numbers should now be correct.**

Photo: US Presswire

More NCAA tournament coverage
Posted on: March 29, 2011 8:07 pm
Edited on: March 30, 2011 12:07 am

Final Four should change old Calipari narrative

Posted by Matt Jones

Sports writing is easier when we can put subjects into an easy-to-navigate narrative. A normal story has a good guy, a bad guy, some type of compelling action and presto, you have a column that can be churned out to fit everything from the NFL Labor dispute to the Final Four.

What is much more difficult to figure out is how to handle a complex individual or one that does something to alter previous stereotypes. Then, the thoughtful person is required to re-examine previously held assumptions in order to understand if that stereotype was correct. That is a much more difficult path and requires self-reflection, a trait as rare as the dodo bird among some in sports media.

This is why, in part, this Kentucky Final Four appearance is difficult for many to swallow. Right or wrong, Wildcats coach John Calipari long ago was placed into an easily digestible template utilized for any story about him. As a person, he was a slick salesmen, operating on the edge of the NCAA's rulebook. As a coach, he was mediocre at best, gifted at collecting talent but not much of a tactician. And many in the media exploited his failures almost as a springboard to pursue his next controversy.

But this Final Four, Calipari and his team don't fit that construct. Yes, this Kentucky team has talent. Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones are potential lottery picks and Doron Lamb a likely future NBA first-rounder. But this team is not like last year's group, loaded with Calipari's trademark one-and-dones. Instead, three veterans, none recruited by Calipari nor significant contributors in the past, have risen up and helped lift the Wildcats to Houston.

Darius Miller , DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson are nice players. But coming into this season, all three were virtually unknown outside of the Kentucky basketball world. This is not Derrick Rose , John Wall or DeMarcus Cousins showcasing professional ability transcending any college coach. Instead, these are players who have had to work hard to simply see the court in college. Calipari has put these players in a spot where they can be successful and excel as a team. That isn't about collecting great talent, but coach and players coming together to get the most out their abilities.

At the East Regional in Newark, Kentucky played two teams which had not only better talent, but also were more "team-oriented" (read: better-coached). And in both games, Calipari outmaneuvered his opponent. Against Thad Matta's Ohio State team, Calipari defended star center Jared Sullinger straight up with Harrellson -- no double team -- and focused on shutting down the perimeter. He put defensive stopper Liggins on Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft and the result discombobulated Ohio State's normally efficient attack.

Against Roy Williams and North Carolina, Calipari reversed his previously unsuccessful plan from a December loss to UNC. Instead of attacking Carolina's big men inside and allowing their height to be an advantage, Kentucky focused more on driving and kicking out to open 3-point shooters. The result was 12 made 3s for the Wildcats and a neutralization of some of the interior defensive effectiveness of Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes .

In both games, Calipari's squad executed a specific plan aimed at cutting off the other team at the knees. The plan in both games involved significant offensive contributions from Kentucky's three previously unknown veterans, who combined for 37 points in each of the two games. This was not the case of Calipari team hitting another team over the head and breaking their will with raw talent. Instead it was beating the other team by reacting to their strengths and exploiting their weakness, aka coaching.

Now a Kentucky team that spent most of the year on the outer edges of the Top 25 is in the program's 14th Final Four, with a legitimate chance to win its eighth national title. The team has been carried, not by a group of made up of McDonald's All-Americans whose recruitment raised clouds of suspicions, but a group of onetime bench-warmers who raised their level of play to new heights. It is a team that if coached by someone like Tom Izzo , would be praised as "gritty" or "tough" and held up as using exemplary coaching tactics.

But will Calipari get the same accolades? Old habits and assumptions die hard. One regular critic, ESPN's Dana O'Neill , said on television that it's worth noting in the UK-UConn semifinal, is that UConn was "on probation too." The statement seemed to assume that Calipari lives on perpetual probation (she later apologized for misspeaking on Twitter). But it cannot be ignored that Calipari's previous two Final Four trips were vacated and one can most certainly guarantee there will be numerous articles written bringing up the various issues from his coaching past.

But beyond all that, this Final Four proves that Calipari is a fine coach. Since Kentucky's most recent Final Four trip in 1998, there have arguably been five better UK teams. But this unit made it to Houston because it has come closer to reaching its fullest potential than any of those others.

There probably are not five NBA first-round draft picks on the roster, but five players playing as well as they possibly can together at precisely the right time. By any standard, that is the sign of solid coaching. One would think that even the most vociferous Calipari critic must acknowledge this accomplishment. But that wouldn't fit easily into the Calipari narrative, causing many to avoid this obvious truth, even as the proof takes the court Saturday in the Final Four.

Category: NCAAB
Tags: Kentucky
Posted on: March 27, 2011 10:18 pm
Edited on: March 27, 2011 10:39 pm

East wrap-up: the best and worst of 15 games

Posted by Matt Norlander

NEWARK, N.J. — Kentucky is back in the Final Four for the first time in 13 years. With all the attention this program gets, it doesn't seem like it's been that long, but is has.

And John Calipari has done it in just his second year. Pretty incredible; this is the exact expectation Wildcats fans had for him when he took the job in 2009. Who's to say what Calipari will do next week, how long he'll stay at Kentucky and what will come with that. But at a bare minimum, the next guy who steps in already has pressure. Two years and you better be in the Final Four. That's just how Big Blue Nation works.

The Wildcats got here in many ways. Sort of crazy to think about his team nearly getting knocked out by Princeton in the first round. Brandon Knight played horribly in that game. But he uses his athleticism to get an angle, hits a leaning runner, the game-winner, and Kentucky moves on. Then the West Virginia game saw Joe Mazzulla channel Jerry West yet again for the Mountaineers, and the Wildcats were certainly sweating again. Remember: West Virginia prevented Kentucky from going to a Final Four last year. Then, wow, Kentucky made its free throws down the stretch (!) and on to the next weekend it was.

We've covered everything you need to know about that Ohio State game, but looking back, it's very possible Kentucky won't have a tougher game, a closer game, a game more defining to its character than that. Such things become true when you play, and beat, the No. 1 overall seed. And Sunday night against North Carolina, Kentucky hit its 3s (an impressive 55 percent of them) and held North Carolina from doing the same (14 percent). It was a solid regional final that wrapped up one of the best second weekends in tournament history.

Amid all this: Jorts. Josh Harrellson continues to be a story, and rightfully so. He, Brandon Knight and Calipari will be the three big stories in the upcoming week. Kentucky certainly earned this, despite having a team with less talent than last year. Always intriguing to see what the tournament spits out into its Final Four. More about the matchups than individual personnel. One lingering thought: Kentucky's fan presence in Newark wasn't overwhelming. That could speak to expectation, or it could speak to Newark. But I'm fairly certain Houston is going to become Lexington South because, while UConn will travel decently, there's no way that school, Butler's contingent and VCU's fans can match what Kentucky can and will bring.

Regional MVP: Brandon Knight. Without Harrellson, Kentucky probably doesn't get here. Without Knight, it definitely doesn't. The Wildcats' freshman point guard hit two game-winners and paced this team to this Final Four. He's a smart kid who doesn't try to live up to the spotlight he's put under. Handles success very well. Kemba Walker will receive the most attention, but Knight deserves to sit right next to him.

All-Regional team

F Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
F Tyler Zeller, North Carolina
F Josh Harrellson, Kentucky
F DeAndre Liggins, Kentucky
G Brandon Knight, Kentucky

Game to remember: Kentucky 62, Ohio State 60. Many expected this one to be good, but as most good games go, we don't expect them to be that good. The East had its share of really nice games, but with so much on the line, and with the upset factor involving the top seed, this takes the cake. Plus, Kentucky proving worthwhile by going out and winning its next game, it only adds to the wave effect of this one in the region.

Game to forget: Ohio State 98, George Mason 66. The Buckeyes never looked more impressive this season than when they opened up with an 11-2 deficit against the Patriots … then went on a 96-55 run, swiftly killing off any notions of 2006 with the eighth-seeded George Mason. At the very least, we wanted GMU to tempt us. It never did.

Biggest disappointment: Syracuse. Some argued the Orange weren’t worth their three seed, but even if that was the case, falling before getting to the Sweet 16 still seemed a letdown. Perhaps only in this universe was this possible, as Syracuse was forced to do something no other team had to prior to the 2011 NCAA tournament: play an in-conference foe in the first weekend. Boeheim's team was deserving of the second weekend.

Best individual performance in a losing effort: Hard to ignore Jared Sullinger's 21-and-16 performance in the regional semis. Again, the game was that good and that important. You may have heard what Sullinger said after the game.

Most memorable moments:

  • Diebler hitting the 3 to tie the game at 60, then Knight coming down and hitting the game-winning shot in Aaron Craft’s eye. Best part? There were no timeouts to stagnate play.  
  • The bad backcourt-violation call on Scoop Jardine that helped end Syracuse’s season in the third round against Marquette.
  • Knight having a miserable game against Princeton ... then hitting the game-winning shot.
  • North Carolina getting pushed to its brink against a Washington team that nearly gave us an upset many pegged from the get-go.
  • Venoy Overton's dumb shots.
  • John Henson's dumb reactions to dumb shots.
  • Buzz Williams' ramblings in press conferences.
  • Harrison Barnes and DeAndre Liggins absolutely jawing with each other. It got really volatile, and it was fantastic theater.
  • It's easy to forget this (so why is it here, in a way, I know), but George Mason beat Villanova in the first game on the opening Thursday of the tournament. GMU won, 61-57, and jump-started an amazing opening afternoon of basketball.
  • Sullinger declaring he'll be back next season.

Team to watch out for next year: Ohio State. Jared Sullinger and William Buford have vowed to return. After some initial skepticism, more and more people are beginning to believe both. The Buckeyes can’t improve their seed — like, at all; remember, they were the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament — but could be as close to this good next year, should the two stick to their word and return.

Photo: US Presswire

More NCAA tournament coverage
Posted on: March 23, 2011 8:52 pm
Edited on: March 23, 2011 11:18 pm

The veterans are making the way for Kentucky

Posted by Matt Jones

Since John Calipari arrived at the University of Kentucky just under two years ago, the program has been best known for one phrase, “one and done”. Beginning with the monster recruiting class he pulled in just a few weeks after taking the job that included John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, Calipari has made clear that his goal is to bring in the best talents in America to Lexington. If those players end up going to the NBA after one year, so be it. It bothers Calipari so little that these players may be on a college campus for just one year, that when four of them (and junior Patrick Patterson) were drafted in the first round, he infamously (and somewhat ridiculously) called it, “the greatest day in UK basketball history.” If "one and done" has a face, it is Kentucky basketball under John Calipari.

But this season, in the place known for “one and done”, there has been a resurgence of the veteran’s movement in Lexington. The program that is now processing more elite talent than any college in America has seen its fortunes rise late in the season, in large part thanks to three old men by current Wildcat standards. Darius Miller, Deandre Liggins and Josh Harrellson are certainly not “one and dones”, and in fact, none of them are even John Calipari recruits. But they all three could be the most significant reasons that Kentucky has advanced to yet another Sweet 16.

Three seasons ago, one would have never imagined any of the veterans would have had significant success at Kentucky. Billy Gillispie was the coach of the Kentucky team and began slowly taking the program on a downward spiral that was both dramatic and swift. Miller, Liggins and Harrellson were all part of the same recruiting class, each brought in with some level of accolades and hype, and all three were thought to be significant early contributors. 

Almost immediately, the experience went haywire. Gillispie’s hard-nosed, verbally abusive coaching style immediately clashed with all three players. Miller and Liggins's more reclusive personalities recoiled from the constant criticism, with both playing as a shell of their high school selves. The confident duo that had been recruited by the best teams in America, all of a sudden looked like a twosome that didn’t believe they could play at Kentucky and both lost the swagger that they showed prior to coming to the school. Stars who were once aggressive scorers, became tentative and unable to perform, leading to a combined scoring average under ten points. Things were even worse for Harrellson, who found himself the constant target of Gillispie’s abuse and was best known for being forced to sit in a bathroom stall by himself at halftime of a game at Vanderbilt for poor play. All three players had miserable seasons and all three considered a change of scenery.

After the season, as Gillispie was let go and Calipari brought in, the prognosis for the program rose but the future for the threesome didn’t necessarily seem brighter. With Calipari came loads of talent and the three “leftovers” weren’t sure that they would be able to find a role with a coach who didn’t recruit them and who employed a playing style that at least in Harrellson’s case, didn’t necessarily fit their talents. In Calipari’s first season, while Miller and Liggins were contributors, Harrellson rarely played and none of the threesome were truly major factors on the team. All were accepted by Calipari and part of the Kentucky program, but only Miller seemed to have the potential to be an integral factor for the future.

But then came an offseason where everything quickly changed for Kentucky basketball. Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton surprised some around the program by entering the NBA Draft. Darnell Dodson left the team soon thereafter due to a series of disciplinary issues. And most importantly, Turkish big man Enes Kanter was denied eligibility by the NCAA due to a violation of his amateur status. All of a sudden, Kentucky became a team with no depth and only a six-man rotation, three of whom ending up having to be the veterans that had previously been forgotten.

Forced to contributors immediately, all three began the process of changing their games and reaching their potential. After struggling again at the beginning of the season with a lack of aggression (and once again earning the nickname ‘Disappearius’), Darius Miller finally became the player Calipari and the fans hoped he could be once conference play began. After scoring in double figures only five times before the SEC season, Miller turned on his aggressiveness as the opponents became familiar.  Over the last 20 games, Miller has gone for double figures 15 times, including in 10 of the last 11 games. His size, shooting ability and long athleticism make him a matchup nightmare for teams and gives Kentucky a legitimate, consistent third scorer.

Deandre Liggins took the challenge of John Calipari seriously and from the beginning, became Kentucky’s official defensive stopper. With his long arms, quickness and never-ending motor, Liggins is a nightmare for perimeter players who seek to score over or around him. In every game this season, Liggins has found himself guarding the other team’s best player and in nearly every game, he has won the battle. While at times, secondary players have hurt Kentucky as they get hot, Liggins is always put on the other team’s primary offensive option and in nearly every case, that star's game is disrupted.

While Miller and Liggins’s success could have potentially been predicted, no one saw the rapid rise this season of Josh Harrellson. The man they call “Jorts,” due to his propensity to wear jean shorts, has been the rock down low that Calipari could have never dreamed he would be. After playing only 88 minutes all season last year, Harrellson has become a rebounding machine for Kentucky, averaging just under 9 a game, good enough for second in the SEC. In key moments in big games, Harrellson has produced his best efforts, with double-digit scoring and rebounds versus arch-rival Louisville, in the SEC tournament and the round of 32 win over West Virginia. His contribution has been so significant and surprising, that Louisville coach Rick Pitino recently called him, “the most underrated player in America.”

Now Kentucky goes into the East regional on Friday to play against an Ohio State team, that from a personnel standpoint, looks a great deal like Kentucky. Both have extremely talented freshmen that are complimented by a number of veteran contributors that execute their particular roles well. On Ohio State, this makeup was always the plan and part of the reason the Buckeyes were considered a national championship contender from the beginning of the year. 

But for Kentucky, the fact that this team has not just been the showcase for potential “one and done” freshmen stars like Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, is more than a bit surprising. As the year has continued and Kentucky has begun playing its best basketball of the season, the reason is not because these freshmen have matured and improved. Instead, it is because a group of upperclassmen, who many around the program had given up on seeing contribute anything but token support to the ever-rotating group of talented freshmen. All three are players that might never have been recruited to Kentucky had Calipari been in charge at the time they were available. But all three have flourished and reached new unexpected heights. And in the process, they have put  Kentucky on the brink of playing for a Final Four, while also interrupting the notion that Kentucky basketball is now only a place to showcase the talent of the "one and dones."

More NCAA tournament coverage
Category: NCAAB
Tags: Kentucky
Posted on: March 22, 2011 10:17 pm
Edited on: March 22, 2011 10:19 pm

16 stories to watch in the Sweet 16

Posted by Matt Jones

1. Ohio State’s quest for dominance
:  College basketball has been decidedly mediocre as a whole this season, with no real difference between most of the teams in the top 25. But all year, Ohio State has seemed to be on a different plane. Its two losses during the regular season were both on the road, against ranked teams in the Top 15. And now in the tournament, as Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, etc have struggled at times in their games, the Buckeyes have rolled and looked absolutely dominant. Now however they are rewarded only with the two winningest programs in college basketball history, Kentucky and North Carolina. Win those two in a convincing manner and they will be cutting the nets down in Houston.

2.  The era of Jorts in full effect:  The most improved player in college basketball is the lone senior on a program known for its freshman, who played 35 total minutes last season. Josh Harrellson is a fan favorite in Lexington, Kentucky, in part because of his Cinderella story and in part because of his unique personality. In addition to becoming a force on the glass down low, Harrellson has embraced the nickname “Jorts,” given to him because he famously wore jean shorts on his campus recruiting visit. The denim legend has a chance to enter UK lore if he can somehow slow down Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and make Kentucky so filled with jean shorts, that it looks like Gainesville on a Saturday college football afternoon.

3.  Buzz Williams’s final audition:  Coach Buzz Williams is absolutely focused on taking Marquette to another Final Four, and to do so, he will have to beat two of the North Carolina, Ohio State, Kentucky trio. But Williams will also be a hot commodity when the season ends, as he is likely to be pursued by all of the job openings left in college basketball. Marquette is not the most attractive BCS-level job and Williams will have the opportunity to jump ship if he so chooses. Either way, a number of college Athletic Directors will be watching his Golden Eagles play, waiting for a loss and a chance to call his cell phone for a quick inquiry.

4.  Harrison Barnes lives up to the hype:  Thanks in large part to the success of freshman John Wall last season, many in the national media felt the need to crown North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes national preseason player of the year before he had even played a game in Chapel Hill. Early in the year, Barnes did not live up the hype, causing some painful growth and verbal reprimands to the press by coach Roy Williams. But as the year has gone on, Barnes has hit his stride and looks an awful lot like the number one player in America he was coming out of high school. A run to the Final Four and the Harrison Barnes redemption story will be told far and wide, likely followed up with a top 5 pick this spring in the NBA Draft.

5. Duke goes for the repeat:  Only two teams have gone back to back in the NCAA tournament in the last 35 years and both were considered some of the best in the history of college basketball. This year's Duke team has the chance to replicate the accomplishment, but do so in a different manner than the two prior winners. Both the 1992 Duke and 2007 Florida teams were dominant from start to finish, but this year's Duke team has been a notch below Ohio State and Kansas all season. They escaped against Michigan on Sunday and now are four games away from college basketball immortality...even if many of us aren't sure that they are all that good.

6. Arizona announces it is back:  It hasn't been that long since Arizona was the dominant college basketball power on the west coast. But then came the rise of UCLA, the decline of the Lute Olson era, Kevin O'Neill and all of a sudden, Arizona basketball became somewhat of an afterthought. Well regardless of what happens in the Sweet 16 versus Duke, the Wildcats' program under Sean Miller has proven that it is once again a power. Derrick Williams has made some of the most athletic plays of the tournament and Arizona has won two hard-fought battles over Memphis and Texas. With a strong recruiting class coming next season, Arizona basketball is back regardless of if they beat Duke. but if they sneak up and knock out the Blue Devils, well Arizona will announce that it is a top ten program once again, this time to stay.

7. Kemba Walker's time:  There isn't much left for Kemba Walker to accomplish at Connecticut. He has had an amazing season and his run in the Big East tournament ensures that he will be remembered forever around the Huskies' program. But he is two wins away from taking his UCONN team to a Final Four, completing a postseason that will have few equals in recent history. His ability to score and will wins at the end of games is unbelievable to watch and Walker now must do it as an underdog two more times to reach his ultimate goal. In a year where the stars have come out, Kemba still has the chance to be the biggest one yet, with two games in Anaheim to tell the tale.

8. Steve Fisher's redemption:  Everyone thinks Steve Fisher is a bad coach. Regardless of his amazing tournament run to the title in 1989 and his time spent overseeing the Fab Five, the reality is that media and most college basketball fans think Fisher is synonymous with "good recruiter/bad coach." But San Diego State has had a tremendous season in a tough conference and now has a chance to prove its mettle versus arguably one of the two best players in the game (Kemba Walker) and the defending national champions (Duke) over the next five days. Win both of those games and Fisher may not quiet the critics, but they will have much less ammunition than they would prefer.

9. Learn about the Morris twins:  Coming out of high school, most figured the Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff, to be super talented, but likely headed for a substantial amount of trouble during their time at Kansas. That opinion was bolstered by a stupid moment from Markieff, as he shot a BB gun out of a dorm window and ended up arrested on a battery charge. But since then, the Morris twins have gotten better on and off the basketball court and are the leaders of a Kansas team with a legitimate chance to win a title. Both players are forces on the glass and can score, making them not only a great brother tandem, but a matchup nightmare. In a relatively open bracket, it should be easy pickings for the brothers Morris.

10. Richmond tries to keep going:  Every year a team comes from out of the first weekend as a big underdog, heads into the second weekend with lots of press and excitement, only to fall in their Sweet 16 game to a stronger opponent. Last year that team was Cornell from the Ivy League and this year it is the familiar NCAA tournament success story, the Richmond Spiders. Unlike past heroes of the little guy, Richmond is from a near-major conference (Atlantic 10) and counts some good athletes and one great player, Kevin Anderson. Richmond plays great defense and has the ability to beat anyone in the tournament...except perhaps Kansas, who creates matchup nightmares for the Spiders. This is the spot where teams like Richmond exit stage left. We shall see if the Spiders will follow the script.

11. Could VCU be great?:  No team had a better first weekend than VCU. Who would have ever imagined that the Colonial team would put absolute smackdowns on USC, Georgetown and Purdue, all three in games that were never really all that close. VCU coach Shaka Smart has become the hottest name in the coaching community and our CBSSports.com writer Gregg Doyel suggested that they might be the most impressive team so far in the tournament. VCU plays a straightforward offensive style, in which every player can score and all on the court have a variety of skills. It makes them tough to prepare for in a given game and nearly impossible to defend when clicking. It is tough to see VCU coming out of this bracket and beating Kansas, but making the Elite Eight and giving the Jayhawks a good game? I would call it likely.

12. Florida State goes for respect:  Every year there is one team like Florida State that makes the Sweet 16. Usually they are from a power conference, were average all year, often underachieving, and then they get the perfect draw and make a run to the tournament's second weekend. The Seminoles were blessed by getting to play the decidedly unathletic and overseeded, Notre Dame Fighting Irish and are now onto play America's new fascination, VCU. When healthy, Chris Singleton is the type of player that can lead FSU over anyone and there will be no team they will see that they can't match up with athletically. But FSU has always been a team that skeptics dismiss and Leonard Hamilton is a coach that usually brings out the eye rolls from those in the college basketball community. This weekend could change that.

13. Brad Stevens tries to do it again:  Butler's move to the championship game last year was remarkable and a testament to the ability of Brad Stevens and a great group of Butler players, led by Gordon Hayward. But this Butler team's set of last-second wins last weekend may have even been more impressive. While Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack are both playing well, there was a time this year that Butler was completely in turmoil, losing to lower level Horizon League teams and looking like a fragment of the team that was a half court shot from cutting down the nets. But Stevens never gave up, the team got better and now two one point wins have put the Bulldogs two victories from the Final Four. The Southeast bracket is wide open and there is no reason that Stevens cannot make magic again.

14. Jordan Taylor will impress:  Jordan Taylor is a phenomenon to watch. While he plays on a painfully boring team that at times can suck the life out of any room it is in, he is an explosive scorer that also has the ability to get his teammates involved and control a game. Taylor will get overshadowed this weekend by Jimmer, Kemba and the rest, but he is as good a player as they are and at the top of his game, potentially a better NBA prospect. Wisconsin is prime to sneak in under the radar and make a trip to the Final Four, because they play great defense and are a style contrast for most teams. Bo Ryan can get it done with this group, but it will be Jordan Taylor who makes it happen.

15. Jimmer: He is the biggest star in college basketball and has become a sports figure so well known, that he can be called only by his first name. Jimmer Fredette draws the highest ratings of the NCAA tournament and is everyone's second favorite player in the nation. But what he doesn't have is a Final Four, an accomplishment that will make him an all-timer in the sport. Florida is a team that BYU beat last year and the Cougars might be favored against either Wisconsin or Butler. Jimmer can do it and if he does, he will become the Tim Tebow of college basketball.  All it takes is two more wins.

16. The under-appreciated Gators: Florida is playing its best basketball of the season and is one of only a few teams left in the tournament that has a scoring threat at every position. This Florida team has generally been overlooked all season and was thought by most to be way overseeded in the No. 2 spot in the Southeast region. But the Gators played two great games in Tampa and come to New Orleans with the most open bracket in the field and are the odds-on favorite to advance. Billy Donovan is extremely overlooked as a coach...three national title games in 11 years and a chance to go to a fourth Final Four this year. Get that done and he has to be considered one of the five best coaches in the game, a group he is rarely placed into.

More NCAA tournament coverage
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com