Surging Kentucky firing on all cylinders
Kentucky coach John Calipari caught his players staring at the TV in disbelief, watching Northern Iowa's upset bid against Kansas a few minutes before the Wildcats were to face Wake Forest in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday.
Calipari immediately hit the power switch.
``I made them turn the TV off to think about our game (and said) 'don't worry about that game,''' Calipari said. ``When they went out, I was saying, 'Wow.'''
After watching Kentucky destroy the Demon Deacons 90-60 to advance to the round of 16 for the first time since 2005, the rest of the country is saying the same thing.
Kentucky's startlingly easy wins on the opening weekend of the tournament combined with Kansas' equally stunning departure has made the Wildcats a suddenly trendy pick to collect their eighth NCAA title.
Actress and Kentucky native Ashley Judd - one of Big Blue's most ardent fans - is back in the stands after a brief hiatus during Billy Gillispie's turbulent two-year tenure.
Judd admitted to having flashbacks to 1996 - when the Wildcats roared to their sixth NCAA crown behind a squad loaded with future NBA players under former coach Rick Pitino - after watching Kentucky dismantle Wake Forest.
``That was a really spectacular win,'' she said.
One that seemed to deliver on the promise Calipari made in October, when he admitted it would take time for the Wildcats to grasp the dribble-drive offense and suffocating defense he used to mold Memphis into a national power.
Kentucky ran the floor with ease and shot 60 percent from the field while harassing Wake Forest into 33 percent shooting.
It was a command performance, though Calipari is doing his best to temper expectations heading into Thursday's regional semifinal in Syracuse against surprising Cornell, who dominated Wisconsin on Sunday.
``We're still a bunch of freshmen and sophomores,'' Calipari said. It was ``our second NCAA tournament game. They've never played in any other games. The guys that we're playing have never played in it.''
Not that it has seemed to matter. Freshmen stars John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins hardly looked at ease playing in the sometimes unnerving crucible the tournament provides.
Cousins couldn't help but laugh when asked if Kansas' loss puts any additional pressure on the Wildcats. The 6-foot-11 center was barely able to get out a ``nope'' between chuckles.
``As long as we come out and play the best we can, that's all we can control,'' added sophomore Darius Miller, who poured in a career-high 20 points against Wake Forest.
When they're at their best, it appears few teams in the country can keep up. Though Calipari has spent most of the year trying to downplay his team's ability, the truth is the Wildcats have been able to survive despite all their perceived flaws.
Their lack of experience - Kentucky starts three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior - hasn't stopped them from winning 34 games.
Their streaky outside shooting no longer seems a problem. Bledsoe hit eight 3-pointers in an opening round win over East Tennessee State, breaking a record held by former star and current assistant Tony Delk, and the Wildcats made a respectable 7 of 21 3-pointers on Saturday.
They've struggled at times holding onto the ball, particularly Wall, who gives it away just over four times a game and turned it over five times against the Demon Deacons.
Yet it doesn't seem to matter. Though Wall can be unstoppable at times, the Wildcats have proven they can win even when he isn't at his best. Bledsoe led the charge in the first round. Miller paved the way in the second. Cousins is arguably the best big man in the country and stoic forward Patrick Patterson is the team's unquestioned leader.
Calipari couldn't care less about who the star is, as long as it's somebody with ``Kentucky'' written across the front of his jersey.
``You're trying to land the plane,'' he said. ``You're trying to get it down on the ground. Whatever is happening, all the turbulence, and the other kind of stuff. We're just trying to get to (the plane) on the ground right now.''
It's been smooth sailing so far, no matter how hard Calipari tries to downplay his team's prospects.
The Wildcats will be heavily favored to end Cornell's surprising run and move on to the regional finals where either West Virginia or Washington awaits.
All three teams are talented. All three would probably have to get Northern Iowa hot to beat the Wildcats.
Not that Calipari wants to talk about it.
``I don't know if we're the overwhelming favorite,'' Calipari said. ``Everybody was picking us to lose (to Wake Forest). They were also saying we'd be the first No. 1 out. So how do they change those talking heads overnight? With one game? Come on.''