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.
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
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