Ex-Wildcats think about what might have been

The game still haunts DeMarcus Cousins a year later.

Whenever the former Kentucky center’s mind wanders to last

year’s dismal 73-66 loss to West Virginia in the NCAA tournament’s

East regional final, Cousins tosses and turns as images of missed

shots and missed opportunities replay in his mind.

”When I think about it I can’t sleep at night because we should

have won that game,” said Cousins, now a rookie center for the

Sacramento Kings.

Instead, the Wildcats walked off the Carrier Dome floor at

Syracuse in stunned silence, as the program’s resurgent season

under John Calipari ended with a whimper – and the sound of 28

missed 3-pointers clanging off the rim.

”If we played them again it would be a different story,”

Cousins said. ”We would’ve beat them and beat them good.”

The pain lingered for weeks.

Even at 18, Cousins understood he was part of something

special.

Yet the promise of NBA riches proved to be too tempting. Cousins

and four other Wildcats – John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Patrick

Patterson and Daniel Orton – opted to leave school early rather

than make another run at a national title.

”Yes, I wish I was still there,” Cousins said. ”College life

was fun.”

Kentucky (29-8) plays in its first Final Four in 13 years on

Saturday when it faces UConn (30-9) in Houston. More than a

thousand fans showed up at Blue Grass Airport to welcome the team

back late Sunday night after knocking off North Carolina in the

East Regional final, the same kind of celebration that was supposed

to happen last year.

”I wanted to be there for that,” Cousins said.

Instead, his new job means the talented if still maturing

Cousins will have to settle for watching Kentucky pursue its first

national title since 1998 from afar.

So will Patterson, beloved by one of college basketball’s most

passionate fan bases during his three years on campus. The

blue-collar forward weathered Billy Gillispie’s tumultuous two-year

tenure and blossomed into a more versatile player under Calipari,

developing a perimeter game that he knew he needed to become a

better player at the next level.

He graduated a year early and patiently weighed his options

before deciding to join his four freshmen teammates in the

draft.

The mass exodus dampened the program’s sky-high expectations for

an encore.

The freshman trio of Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron

Lamb were all highly coveted when they signed with Kentucky, but

even Calipari acknowledged it wasn’t fair to compare them to last

year’s group, which the coach described as ”once in a

lifetime.”

Yet they’ve somehow accomplished something Wall and Co.

couldn’t: add a Final Four banner to the rafters at Rupp Arena.

It’s a surprise to some. Not to Patterson.

”You know the freshmen he gets are going to play well, know

that they will be stars and shine and they’ll buy into the system,

just like John did and Derrick Rose did,” he said. ”Every single

year that he has had a rookie, they have done exceptionally well.

So coming with this class, we believed the same thing. It’s all

about stepping up, believing in one another and that’s what they

did down the stretch.”

Though not nearly as deep or as athletic as last year’s team,

the current crop of Wildcats are better shooters – they made 12 of

22 3-pointers against the Tar Heels – and consider themselves a

tighter unit off the floor.

”This team, I think it has more desire,” said junior swingman

DeAndre Liggins, one of the few Wildcats who opted to stick around

last spring. ”Not that many egos involved, just all know our roles

this year and played well.”

Whatever it is the Wildcats are doing, it’s infectious.

Wall, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft by the Washington

Wizards, struggled with injuries in the fall but is now playing his

best basketball of the season, thanks in part to the inspiration

he’s drawn from watching his old team get it together.

”I’m feeding off it,” he said. ”I’m happy for my Kentucky

teammates. They did something we couldn’t do last year. …

Hopefully they can win it all.”

It’s a feeling all five of the departed players likely won’t

enjoy this season. Only Patterson plays on a winning team, though

the Rockets are considered an afterthought in the loaded Western

Conference. Orton is technically on the roster with the Orlando

Magic, but he hasn’t suited up all year while dealing with knee

problems.

The combined record of the Kings, Wizards, Rockets, Magic and

Los Angeles Clippers (which drafted Bledsoe) entering Wednesday is

107-197, a tough reality for players from a 35-3 team.

Then again, they do have one advantage over the Wildcats who

will play against UConn on Saturday night: they’re all

millionaires.

The joy they played with a year ago has been tempered a bit by

the grind of an 82-game NBA regular season. To a man, however, they

say they wouldn’t change a thing. They had their shot and missed.

It’s part of the game.

”No regrets at all,” Patterson said. ”This is a lot different

but I definitely think about it all the time how much I miss it,

but no regrets.”

AP Sports Writers Lynn DeBruin in Salt Lake City, Tom Canavan in

Newark, N.J., and AP freelancer Antonio Harvey in Sacramento,

Calif., contributed to this report.