NCAA Tournament – Freshmen buy in, Kentucky appears in Final Four
Two years, two completely different teams. That’s what happens when you attract top talent, they leave for the bright lights of the NBA before you can even learn their names.
The struggle of trying to mold a championship team out of a bunch of kids who can’t even legally drink yet is a challenge not unfamiliar to Kentucky head coach John Calipari.
”You have to have good kids that respect each other, that understand it’s bigger than them,” Calipari said.
Senior Josh Harrellson, the elder statesman of the Wildcats, said it’s incredibly hard to get an unfamiliar group to mesh in a period of only several months. Last season, Harrellson was part of another UK team of freshman that lost in the Elite Eight to West Virginia, but he feels this team is different.
“It’s tough. A lot is expected of a lot of young guys,” Harrellson said. “They’ve never been on this stage before and it’s tough because if you think about it we’ve only been together for six or seven months now as a team. That’s pretty rare for a team that hasn’t been together for so long to come to the Final Four. We’ve come a long way.”
Calipari agrees that the Wildcats have matured as the season has progressed.
“This team went from me dragging them to them dragging me,” Calipari said. “That’s when they become empowered. That’s when they become special. It’s what I try to do with all of my teams. At different points of the year, you realize they know it, they got it, they’ve figured it out and they’re dragging me, I’m not dragging them.”
The secret to Calipari’s success is that his players realize that goals of the team are bigger than the individual. Two freshman, Terrance Jones and Doron Lamb, have embodied the sacrifice that Calipari preaches.
“You might ask, ‘ Why are they two heroes?’” Calipari said. “Because Terrance Jones in Maui took 44 shots in three games and that’s all he’s talked about was him. He’s taken 33 shots in four games, taken a little bit of a backseat so we can move forward. He’s still rebounding and playing defense, but he’s not the centerpiece of our offense.
“Doron Lamb had to cut out some minutes and step out for DeAndre Liggins. That’s what happens when good kids understand that it’s about a team, it’s not just about me. In these situations, these kids want to be the man. I’ll say this, in both Terrance’s case and Deron, they could go for 25 if they wanted. They got talent and they’ve done it this year.”
Calipari said that the most growth might have come from his point guard, Brandon Knight. Calapari has a reputation for coaching up great lead guards – John Wall and Tyreke Evans in the previous two seasons.
Calipari said that when Knight first came to UK, he was a shy kid and silent on the floor.
“You can’t lead a team unless you’re speaking,” Calipari said. “We really hammered him early. Now he comes to practice and you hear him over everyone else.
“It’s not a comfortable thing for him, but he can’t be that point guard. And he changed. Had to get better with his left hand; he changed. He had to become a more consistent playmaker; he’s changed. He’s worked on it and I was hard on him. I’m very hard on point guard because I know they drive your team.”
The Wildcats have grown up in a hurry and Calipari hopes that his freshman will continue to drag him all the way to victory in Houston.