Philadelphia, PA – Kentucky is back in the Final Four for the second time in a row and 15th time in school history. The Wildcats' success this season has been unmatched, as they have already piled up a 36-2 overall record, an undefeated Southeastern Conference season, and regular season SEC championship. After defeating the Indiana Hoosiers in the Sweet 16, the Wildcats can say they have beaten every opponent they have faced this season.
UK became the all-time winningest program in NCAA Tournament history with its Elite 8 triumph over Baylor. Adolph Rupp guided the school to its first four NCAA titles before Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino, and Tubby Smith added to the trophy case.
John Calipari has made three previous visits to the Final Four (although the first two were later vacated), but he has yet to cut down the nets. In 1996, Calipari coached a Marcus Camby led UMass team to the national semifinal round where it lost to UK, which was coached by Rick Pitino. Then during his stint with Memphis, Calipari guided the Derrick Rose led Tigers to the title game, where they lost in overtime to Kansas. Last year's heartbreaking 56-55 loss to UConn in the Final Four might be a little more fresh in Calipari's memory bank. Especially since he will be squaring off with the former Cats coach, Pitino, who is coaching a Louisville squad that seems to be intent on replicating the Huskies' run of 2011.
Calipari is considered one of the top coaches and is arguably the best recruiter in the NCAA, his abilities have made him the second highest paid coach in the nation, behind Pitino. Although both coaches deny there is an underlying rivalry, their head-to-heads, history, and equally competitive natures make each time they square off premier, must-see games.
Although his unit is battling an in-state rival, Calipari has indicated there is no more extra pressure added.
"When you are playing at this stage of the season, a win or a loss doesn't matter if it is against a school that is 12 miles from you or a thousand miles it really does not matter. We are playing a terrific basketball team that has terrific players that play a style that is aggressive and fast, they are really good. It doesn't matter how close they are to us, they are a very, very good team and it is going to be a hard game for us."
In their regular season matchup with Louisville, the Wildcats came out with a 69-62 decision, due to a breakout performance by freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The youngest player on UK's roster dominated Louisville by netting 24 points and grabbing 19 boards. He has been a monster recently, scoring 21.5 points and grabbing 7.5 rebounds per game in his last two outings.
Although Kidd-Gilchrist is enough to give an opposing coach a migraine, his abilities have been overshadowed by fellow freshman forward Anthony Davis. The UK fan base was excited when Davis decided to head to Lexington, but he has exceeded expectations with an overwhelming rookie campaign. Davis dominated at both ends of the floor this season with team-high averages of 14.3 points and 10.1 boards per game. The rookie broke the SEC's single season block record, which helped him earn SEC Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, and Freshman of the Year awards. Davis is the most accomplished forward/center Calipari has coached since Marcus Camby, to whom many compare the freshman phenom's style of play.
As if the forward combo is not enough, Kentucky has a handful of other pro prospects on its roster. While his older brother ran the show for the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA this season, Marquis Teague has made steady progress while acting as the floor general for UK. Teague has a high motor and consistently pushes the ball in transition to pressure the opposition's fast break defense. The point guard is also a freshman. Teague has expressed the confidence that his team's success will continue in New Orleans.
"I think you can win this way. You just give people opportunities to do what they do. He (Coach Calipari) lets us play and we have had success with it all year, and I feel like it is good enough to win a championship."
The lone senior contributor for UK is forward Darius Miller. His hunger for a national title is quite evident, as he has scored 19 points on two separate occasions in the Big Dance already. His recent improvement was sparked by an unselfish move by his teammate, Kidd-Gilchrist.
Calipari commented on his senior's recent improvement "Miller is playing now like he did at the SEC Tournament a year ago. You know where it all started? Michael (Kidd-Gilchrist) saying 'let him start in my place, we need him to start.' How about that? You are talking about a young freshman doing that. This team has been there for each other and I think they are excited about this."
Sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb are big contributors for the Wildcats as well. Their initial experience in the Final Four left them with a bitter taste in their mouths. Lamb's outside shooting ability can be a huge x-factor in games. Jones is an athletic forward with a tenacious thirst for rebounding the ball.
With a rotation made up of underclassmen with one exception, Kentucky's biggest enemy will be itself. The Wildcats have been more talented and athletic than all of their opponents so far, but still have fallen to teams they are clearly better (although it was only twice). The Wildcats are not going to trick anyone with a complex offensive scheme as they rely on their athleticism and pure skill to overpower their opponents. This is easily the most skilled team Calipari has ever coached, but he had a much more experienced lineup in 2007-2008 when he took Memphis to the title game.
With Miller's eligibility expiring and a good portion of the young nucleus expected to be NBA bound, this year is do or die for most of the team. Another trip to the national title game would be huge for Calipari's legacy and will only help him reload for next season. Being the only one-seed left in the field, the Wildcats are without a doubt the most accomplished team in New Orleans, but it would only take one loss to make UK's season a giant disappointment.
Although UK has been excellent so far in the tourney, it will face even more pressure as everything is on the line on the national stage. If the Wildcats manage to take down their in-state rival and then overcome Ohio State or Kansas in the national championship game, they will cement their spot in the discussion of best teams of all-time and provide Calipari, with the one thing that still eludes him - a national title.