Final Four run caps satisfying season at Kentucky
John Calipari doesn't expect it to take 13 years to get Kentucky back to the Final Four.
The coach would prefer next spring, though it's unclear who will be along for the ride. The program's first trip to the national semifinals in more than a decade might have been too good for its own good.
Center Josh Harrellson is graduating. Freshman Brandon Knight's breakout performance in the NCAA tournament has him pondering the NBA. Classmates Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb could join him in the draft. Ditto defensive stopper DeAndre Liggins.
Though another wave of McDonald's All-Americans stand at the ready, they'll have to work to match the achievements of this surprising group that wasn't supposed to be good enough or deep enough to return the Wildcats to college basketball's biggest stage. Not without freshman center Enes Kanter, whom the NCAA ruled permanently ineligible in January for accepting improper benefits from a Turkish club team two years ago.
The decision left the Wildcats with a short bench and only Harrellson, who played all of 88 minutes as a junior, as a true post presence and forced the team into some uncomfortable growing pains.
Kentucky wobbled through the winter, losing six road games in the SEC and looking incapable of coming through in the clutch.
''Early in the season, we didn't play well as a team,'' Harrellson said. ''From there we just got better and better each game. A lot of people doubted us. We proved a lot of people wrong.''
Particularly in March.
The Wildcats roared through the SEC tournament, trouncing Florida in the title game. It wasn't enough to impress NCAA tournament officials, who made Kentucky a No. 4 seed in a crowded East region that included top-overall seed Ohio State.
Kentucky escaped the opening weekend behind Knight, who hit a lay-up to beat Princeton then dropped in 30 as the Wildcats knocked off West Virginia. He was just getting started. He drilled another game-winner against the Buckeyes then poured in 22 points against North Carolina in the regional final to send Kentucky to the Final Four for the first time since 1998.
It all came to a sudden stop against Connecticut, when Kentucky needed 20 minutes to find itself.
''I guess we weren't expecting everything that goes on with the Final Four, all the pressure and everything,'' Harrellson said. ''We just came out and let it get to us.''
Knight tried to lift the rest of the team on his back, but his legs appeared weakened by the load. He missed 17 of his 23 shots - including four in the final minutes - and gave it up to Liggins on Kentucky's last meaningful possession of the season.
Liggins' 3-pointer was short, and the Huskies moved on to face Butler in the national title game.
''When it ends, you fall off a cliff,'' said Calipari after his team finished 29-9.
But the drop shouldn't be too steep. Not with another top-ranked recruiting class coming to Lexington next year, a group that includes big-man Anthony Davis and point guard Marquis Teague.
Who they'll get to play with, however, won't be decided for weeks. A year ago the Wildcats lost five players to the NBA, including top overall pick John Wall.
Knight and company will have a more difficult decision on their hands. The threat of an NBA lockout looms, as does a sense of unfinished business after coming within a basket of taking Kentucky to the national title game.
All three freshmen brushed off questions about their future in a quiet locker room on Saturday, though Liggins, who became a father earlier in the year, acknowledged he's considering turning pro.
If he leaves, he could cross paths with Harrellson, who turned heads with his sometimes spectacular play against some of the best big men in the country and developed into the emotional leader the Wildcats needed.
''We fell short from our goal we wanted, but I'm happy with my teammates,'' Harrellson said. ''I'm happy how they played, and I'm happy how far they've come.''
Calipari knows he might have to start all over next fall. Reinvention is part of the process when you recruit players whose stay on campus could be brief.
It's an approach Calipari hardly apologizes for, though this season proved more draining than most. He lost his mother, Donna, to cancer in November but didn't miss a game.
His father, Vince, joined him during the postseason and watched the Wildcats take them on an unexpected run. It's one even the ever optimistic Calipari struggled envisioning in January when his team struggled.
The ending was difficult. Calipari's suit was drenched when he walked off the floor at massive Reliant Stadium after two hours spent trying to coax one more win out of a team that wasn't supposed to be there at all.
''They gave us a chance,'' Calipari said. ''We had our opportunity. You know, it's disappointing, but it's been a heck of a year.''