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Kentucky’s upperclassmen have carried the Cats, but the freshmen make them dangerous

Mar 26, 2011, 1:34 AM EDT

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Under the leadership of John Calipari, Kentucky has become known has one-and-done central.

Last season, they sent four players to the first round of the NBA Draft that had been on campus for just the one year. This season, two more (possibly three, if Doron Lamb decides to make the jump) will be headed out the door. And with a recruiting class featuring three of the top 10 recruits and four of the top 25, Coach Cal may end up playing babysitter for 10 one-and-done players in the span of three seasons, and that doesn’t even count Enes Kanter.

But if Kentucky’s run to the Elite Eight, thanks to an exciting 62-60 win over Ohio State on Friday night, proved anything, it’s that freshmen alone cannot carry a team.

It was the play of the upperclassmen that allowed the Wildcats to advance.

Josh Harrellson was sensational against Jared Sullinger on the block. He finished with 17 points, 10 boards (five offensive), and three blocks, and while he certainly didn’t outplay Sullinger (who had 21 points and 16 boards, eight offensive), he was able to make Ohio State’s star freshman work. He forced him into tough shots down the stretch and used his size to prevent Sullinger from consistently getting position.

DeAndre Liggins, who is known as a defensive stopper, became a go-to player down the stretch, finishing with 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting to go with six boards, three assists, and three blocks. Darius Miller added seven points, four boards, four assists, two steals, and two blocks and, in combination with Liggins, shut down William Buford for the night.

Those three freshmen?

They finished with a combined 23 points on 8-of-25 shooting. Brandon Knight had six turnovers. Terrence Jones was just 1-for-7 from inside the arc, had no offensive rebounds, and didn’t get to the free-throw line. Lamb had six points on two threes in the span of about a minute, but beyond that, his only addition to the box score was a block and two fouls.

And Kentucky <span style=”font-style:italic;”>still</span> beat the team most believed to be the best in the country.

That’s saying something.

It’s saying that Kentucky is a very, very dangerous basketball team.

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Not to beat a dead horse, but they just knocked off the best basketball team in the country when their two first-team all-conference players each shot 3-of-10 from the field. They’ve made it all the way to the Elite Eight with Jones struggling. In the three tournament games, Jones is averaging 10.0 ppg and 6.7 rpg. He’s shooting 10-of-23 from the field, has just three offensive rebounds, and has gotten to the foul line all of 10 times. Lamb hasn’t been much better, averaging 6.3 ppg and shooting just 7-of-17 from the floor.

What happens when they wake up?

Knight has been inconsistent — he had two points against Princeton, 30 against West Virginia, and nine against Ohio State — but he has been terrific in the clutch. He has hit game-winners to beat both Princeton and Ohio State (despite having off-nights) and made six free throws down the stretch to hold off a West Virginia comeback.

Kentucky matched up very well with Ohio State. They don’t match up quite as well with North Carolina, which the Wildcats face on Sunday in the East regional final.

But with the way the upperclassmen have been playing over the past month, if Jones, Knight, and Lamb all show up, a bad matchup may not matter.

All of a sudden, Kentucky looks like it may actually be a title contender.

And if I were to tell you that it was due, in very large part, to the play of Harrellson, Liggins, and Miller, who would have believed me in February?

  1. pcoleman58 - Mar 26, 2011 at 2:51 AM

    Awesome game Cats!!!! You make all of our hearts bleed blue for you!! You have proved tonight that you can whoop any team out there. Keep up the game play you guys have adapted!! It works!!!! You are now truly a TEAM!!!!! Very proud of you all!!! I am especially proud of Harrellson! What a shame you had such a crappy coach your first two seasons, but a little glad, you stayed instead of moving up!

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