Lee the unlikely hero as Kentucky dances on
INDIANAPOLIS — Go big or go home?
It’s not that simple, but if not for Marcus Lee and the abilty to go big, Kentucky might have gone home after Sunday’s classic Midwest Regional final vs. Michigan.
Instead, the young and dangerous Wildcats dance on to the Final Four.
With 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein out of the lineup due to an ankle injury, Kentucky coach John Calipari had to go deeper into his bench than he had been going. Before he scored 10 points and had 8 rebounds — the first seven at the offensive end — in Kentucky’s dramatic win Sunday, Lee had last scored on Feb. 22.
He’d played one minute in the NCAA tournament.
But he’d been waiting. And listening, apparently.
"Coach just told me to always be ready," Lee said. "So I just tried to stay ready, no matter what the time was, and contribute to the team."
Five freshmen start for Kentucky, and the 6-foot-9 Lee was one of two to give Calipari quality minutes off the bench Sunday. The young Wildcats are now proven dangerous, and almost by accident they learned that they had a new weapon.
"(Calipari) told the team I was going to have a big day," Lee said. "Knowing us, none of us believed him."
It was at that point in the postgame press conference that Calipari interrupted Lee.
"And ‘everyone in the world would be talking about you’ is what I said," Calipari said, leaving the floor open for Lee.
"Right," Lee said.
"I’m proud of you, kid," was Calipari’s response.
No coach anywhere weeps for Calipari when it comes to resources or talent on hand. Lee normally might have been the ninth or 10th man in an eight-man rotation for Kentucky, but just a year ago he was a McDonald’s All-American in Antoich, Calif.
Before playing 15 minutes Sunday, Lee was averaging 5.7 minutes per game on the season. He had 24 field goals all season before Sunday, 12 dunks. He had 31 rebounds, 18 at the offensive end.
"We had very little on him (on the scouting report)," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "He does one thing really, really well. He plays way above the rim."
The scouting report was limited — but accurate.
Lee’s big day almost didn’t happen, even after it started. Just a couple trips after he was inserted into the game, he backed away from Michigan sharpshooter Nik Stauskas right in front of the Kentucky bench. Stauskas hit one of his two first-half 3-pointers, and Calipari nearly ran onto the floor screaming at Lee.
The coach stopped mid-tirade to summon Dakari Johnson from the bench to get back in the game and replace Lee.
But then Lee dunked at the other end on the ensuing possession.
Then, he got another. And Calipari sent Johnson back to the bench.
The best way to answer when opportunity knocks apparently is to dunk it with two hands.
"(Lee) started at the beginning of our year. He was a starter," Calipari said. "He got sick and it kind of set him back, then Dakari and Willie went crazy, both of them playing so good. That’s what happened more than anything else. But I knew he had it in him."
Like what has happened with his classmates over the past week, the big stage brought out the best in Lee.
And maybe, with a trip to North Texas looming, even better is yet to come.