Much has changed since meeting in Maui
It was played thousands of miles away in an old rickety gym on the island of Maui, in front of 2,400 people way back in late-November, while the majority of the sports-viewing public was focused on what was happening on the gridiron rather than the hardwood.
Kentucky’s Big Blue Nation was stunned after a UConn team that was expected to be an afterthought at the Maui Invitational rolled over their beloved Wildcats, 84-67.
It was so bad that Kentucky coach John Calipari had no other option but to praise Huskies Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun. It was also so completely one-sided that Calipari had no choice but to make alterations.
Over the next few months, he tweaked his offense, scaling back on his famed Dribble Drive scheme, helped his three freshmen mature and also figured out a way to get the most of his holdovers from the Billy Gillispie regime.
Calhoun also learned plenty back at the Lahaina Civic Center, as his team rolled to the Maui Invitational title after wins over Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky.
He found out the Huskies were not an NIT team.
He watched Kemba Walker, who was just a piece on last year’s disappointing UConn team that went to the NIT, become an overnight star and, despite his small stature, a player who could carry the Huskies on his back for much of the season.
He saw enigmatic sophomore big man Alex Oriakhi turn into a dominant post player, giving effort on nearly every possession, showing the swagger and intensity he has lacked at times throughout his career. Oriakhi went for 18 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks and NBA scouts were salivating.
His counterpart, Kentucky center Josh Harrellson, was just a 6-foot-10, 270-pound barrier who stood in Oriakhi’s way that night – a big stiff who was virtually helpless in his effort to keep the Huskies’ big man off the glass. Harrellson’s confidence was still in shambles, dating back from his days of getting tossed into a bathroom stall during a halftime speech by his former coach.
Harrellson took just one shot, was scoreless and grabbed six rebounds in 25 minutes.
The critics who watched that game echoed the same sentiment: Harrellson would be the primary reason Kentucky couldn’t get to Houston for the Final Four.
Four months later, Harrellson doesn’t look like the same player. And he’s not alone.
Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight was brutal on Nov. 24, missing all eight of his 3-point attempts, going 3-for-15 from the field overall and finishing with just six points and as many assists as turnovers (five).
Knight was still learning – how to score the ball in Calipari’s offense, how to play point guard and how to lead.
On that day, fellow frosh Terrence Jones was Calipari’s go-to guy. Kentucky fans were upset with the loss, but ecstatic with the play of Jones – who finished with 24 points in the loss.
Now, Jones and Knight have flipped roles and Harrellson has turned into a legitimate weapon on both ends of the court. Knight has been the star of this team for the past couple months, while Jones has struggled.
Both teams have learned plenty since that day in Hawaii – about themselves and about their opponent on Saturday night in the national semifinals.
Now, Kentucky can dump the ball down low to Harrellson and get results. Now, Calipari can put the ball in Knight’s hands and expect him to make a play with the game on the line.
Calhoun now knows that Walker’s early season performance was no fluke – and his junior guard has the makeup of a star.
He’s unflappable and up to any challenge – as he showed by leading the Huskies to five wins in five consecutive days in Madison Square Garden to walk away with the Big East Tournament championship.
But Calhoun also realizes that Oriakhi remains an enigma. Back then, he was the team’s second offensive option behind Walker. Now, that role is performed by baby-faced freshman wing Jeremy Lamb – who logged just a dozen uneventful minutes in the first matchup.
The long and talented Lamb, not unlike Knight, was still trying to find his way back in November. It was just a few games into his college career. However, now Calhoun is comfortable with Lamb taking the big shot.
Jeremy’s not the only Lamb who has progressed. There’s one on the other side as well: Kentucky frosh Doron Lamb, who has turned into a knock-down shooter.
UConn left Maui with the championship, and a shocking win over Kentucky. But there isn’t much that these two coaches can truly draw upon from the first go-around. They may as well throw away the tape.
These aren’t the same teams as those that met back in November. In fact, they’re hardly recognizable.