NCAA Tournament: UNC, Kentucky play with Final Four at stake
By Will Graves
NEWARK, N.J. — In an NCAA tournament filled with stunning upsets and unlikely party crashers, the East region has provided an oasis of sanity.
Kentucky. North Carolina.
College basketball bluebloods whose gyms are ringed with national championship banners and whose fan bases are disappointed any time a season ends without confetti and celebratory newspaper fronts on the first Monday night in April.
The expectations are as impossible as the numbers are eye-popping.
The sport’s two winningest programs have combined for more than 4,000 victories — including 209 in the NCAA tournament — 31 Final Four appearances and a dozen national titles.
Talk about star power.
“Yes, the names on the front: Kentucky and North Carolina, wow. The history of these programs, wow,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari. “But I don’t think (my players) are worried about that and I am certainly not.”
The current crop of Tar Heels presents enough worries on its own.
North Carolina (27-9) took off in January after coach Roy Williams put freshman point guard Kendall Marshall in charge of running its high-octane offense. The second-seeded Tar Heels have ripped off 12 victories in their last 13 games, the latest an 81-63 mauling of Marquette in the regional semifinals on Friday.
Kentucky (28-8) needed more time to get it together.
A season after super freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins helped Calipari revive the program, their replacements — Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Brandon Knight — struggled to find an identity.
At one point the Wildcats lost six straight games decided by five points or less, including a 75-73 loss in Chapel Hill in December.
Williams and Calipari will take a cursory glance at the game film but acknowledge it might not help.
“Both teams are drastically different,” Williams said. “I think that both teams were very young and still very young, but I think the experiences that we’ve gained have made both of us a much better team.”
Kentucky certainly looked like one during a 62-60 upset of top-seeded Ohio State on Friday. The Wildcats shut down the Buckeyes’ potent attack and advanced to the regional final for the second straight year when Knight calmly drilled the game-winning jumper with 5 seconds remaining, his second hero shot of the tournament.
Now, the group that has played much of the season trying to break free from the shadow cast by Wall and company can do something last year’s group couldn’t: send the Wildcats to the Final Four for the first time since 1998.
Kentucky rolled into the regional final last spring only to brick its way through a 73-66 loss to West Virginia. Senior center Josh Harrellson, a little-used role player at the time, remembers trudging off the floor of the Carrier Dome in shock as the Mountaineers cut down the nets.
At least the Wildcats were in the tournament. North Carolina watched last year’s NCAAs from home a season after rolling to its fifth national title.
Injuries and the departure of stars such as Tyler Hansbrough took their toll. Things hardly looked better this year as the Tar Heels slogged to a 4-3 start while freshman Harrison Barnes battled to live up to the considerable hype.
Williams says there was no “light switch” moment with Barnes, that his improvement is simply a byproduct of hard work and maturation.
The result has been two months of scorching play that has brought the Tar Heels within a game of their 10th Final Four in the last 20 years.
It’s a destination that seemed remote in December. If North Carolina can play with the same warp speed with which it dispatched Marquette, it could be inevitable.
For all the talk about Calipari’s “dribble-drive” offense, Kentucky has reeled off nine straight wins with its defense. The grit the Wildcats lacked in the clutch in January, they have in ample abundance now.
While Calipari would love to point toward the gimmicks he used — including putting up a heavy bag in the team’s practice facility so they could work out their aggression — for his team’s newfound inner strength, he can’t. The Wildcats had to grow up on their own time, even if this team took a little longer than expected.
“What toughened us up is going on the road and losing and it meant something to these players,” Calipari said. “They didn’t want to lose.”
For the last three weeks, they haven’t, putting together the kind of run that has Calipari hopeful Kentucky can end its longest drought between Final Fours in the program’s history.
It’s the only way they measure success at a place that boasts it has “the greatest tradition in college basketball.” It’s why the university made Calipari the highest-paid coach in the country when it lured him away from Memphis two years ago. It’s all Calipari hears about from the 25,000 assistant coaches that pack Rupp Arena every winter.
He’s fine with the pressure. So is Williams. It comes with the territory when you coach basketball royalty.
And though both coaches believe their players pay little heed to the history books, Marshall allows it’s difficult to ignore the banners inside the Dean Dome, ever present reminders of the only thing that matters.
Sunday evening, Cinderella has the night off.
“There are only a handful of teams that can say you are like the Mecca of basketball,” Marshall said. “It’s a tradition to have two great teams in the postseason going up against each other, so may the best team win.”