Friday March 26th, 2010

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The Kentucky Wildcats ran on to the "neutral" Carrier Dome court Thursday night to a cascade of boos. Freshmen stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins giggled. The throngs of red-clad Cornell supporters -- apparently misinformed about the protocol for aspiring Cinderellas -- then broke out an inappropriately premature chant of "over-rated."

"That got our attention," Wall said afterward.

The top-seeded Wildcats let Cinderella have its moment for roughly five minutes. A pair of Ryan Wittman three-pointers keyed a quick 8-0 run and lifted the Big Red to a 10-2 lead that allowed both Cornell's old and new-as-of-this-week faithful to briefly envision a potentially epic Sweet 16 upset.

And then Kentucky promptly bled the life out of the party. It outscored the Big Red 30-6 over the last 15 minutes of the first half and, but for a brief late comeback bid by Cornell, reasserted itself as the team to beat in this tournament with a suffocating 62-45 win.

The Wildcats move on to the Elite Eight, where they'll meet torrid No. 2 seed West Virginia -- and much of America will likely root against them then, too.

Asked why he thinks his team has become college basketball's most notorious villain this season, Wall, the sport's most recognizable freshman, replied, "I dont know," and then added, "Its kind of fun. A lot of people dont want us to win."

It wasn't hard to peg why so many were cheering against Wall's team Thursday. Everybody loves an underdog, and Cornell -- the first Ivy League team to reach the Sweet 16 since 1979 -- was the underdog's underdog. Even after dominant performances in their prior tourney wins over Temple and Wisconsin, an Ivy beating Kentucky would have gone down as one of the sports all-time biggest upsets.

It's also no great secret how these particular Wildcats became unwitting villains. A great many people think their coach cheats. They resent his band of presumed one-and-done freshmen (Wall, Cousins, Eric Bledsoe) by association. They think Wall is a prima donna, Cousins a hot-head.

With that in mind, Thursday's result must have been incredibly disappointing to a whole lot of people. Not because Kentucky won -- because it did so in the most anti-diva, anti-immature fashion possible.

Simply put, the Wildcats played incredible team defense.

Cornell came in having torched two of the nations stingiest defensive teams for an average 84.5 points and nearly 60 percent shooting. It was one of the nation's top three-point shooting teams all year.

Kentucky held the Big Red to 33.3 shooting, including just 5-of-21 (23.8 percent) from beyond the arc. It held Wittman -- a 17.8-point per game scorer -- to four points over the games final 35 minutes. It had nine steals by halftime and scored 17 points in the first half off turnovers. It rendered Cornell 7-footer Jeff Foote a non-factor and completely disrupted the Big Red's preferred style of offense.

"It takes a disciplined team [to do that], and thats whats amazing," said Wildcats coach John Calipari. "The focus that it takes for a group of young people like this, you know, in their first NCAA tournament run, was tremendous."

Here we are, 37 games into the season, and Cal is still playing the "we're so young" card. You know that's got to grate on people.

But it's true. People keep waiting for the freshman- and sophomore-heavy Wildcats to show their age, to wilt under the pressure of what, for nearly all of them, is their first tourney experience. If anything, the opposite seems to be happening. They've looked more mature, and less selfish, since the tournament started. Their opponents' scores (East Tennessee State: 71), have decreased (Wake Forest: 60) with each passing game (Cornell: 45).

"Since we started the tournament, we've stepped up our defense," said senior Ramon Harris. "Coach tells us we've got to put them under pressure, not let them put us under pressure."

If the Wildcats are feeling pressure during this tourney, they're sure doing a heck of a job hiding it. Just before Kentucky took the floor here Thursday, another No. 1 seed, Syracuse, went down to Butler, following in the footsteps of Kansas (to Northern Iowa) last week. Those teams purportedly had seasoned leaders to steer the through the tumult.

Calipari has Wall and Cousins, who'd only watched the tournament on television prior to this season, and forward Patrick Patterson, who missed the tourney last year. How come the other guys seem so much more uptight?

"Coach wants us to be the team that has the most fun during the tournament, and that's what were doing," said Wall. "This could be all of our last time playing together. Why not win it all?"

The Wildcats were far from perfect Thursday. Offensively, they flat-out stunk for much of the second half, scoring just eight points over the first 12 minutes to let Cornell, which trailed 32-16 at halftime -- to keep hanging around.

"We backed off on them," said Wall. "We didn't come with the same intensity that we had in the first-half offense trying to score and look for our plays. I think we backed off and later we started fouling, and they started making shots."

Cornell eventually cut the Wildcats lead to 40-34 with 5:42 remaining, but with the flick of a switch, Kentucky put it back out of hand. The difference-maker: Cousins. Few teams can match his physicality, and certainly not the Big Red. He scored two baskets, later got to the free-throw line and finished with a team-high 16 points on 7-of-8 field goals.

As in seemingly every Kentucky game, there were a couple of moments where Cornell defenders tried to provoke the big guy. Ashley Judd and her fellow Big Blue faithful looked ready to run on the court and riot after one particularly egregious no-call.

But Cousins simply walked back up court, as he's been wont to do lately.

"We finished the game trying to go at them," said Calipari. "I even told [Cousins], You know they're going to foul you now. You're going to have to make free throws or we can't throw it to you. I said, 'Can you make free throws? He said, "I can make free-throws. I said "OK."

With that, Kentucky marched on to the Elite Eight for the first time in five years, on the brink of its first Final Four berth since 1998--an unfathomably long drought for Wildcats followers. They'll be facing a tough, veteran-laden, defensively strong West Virginia team.

"It's going to be a very difficult game for us to win," said Calipari. "All these young guys, it will be one of those games that they'll be like, Wow. This thing, they're coming at us left and right. It will be hard."

Yes it will -- but not because theyre young. It's been 37 games now, and still no sign of some vast Kentucky youth meltdown.

A whole lot of folks are broken up about it, too.

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