Youthful Kentucky leans on vets to avoid upset by Princeton
TAMPA, Fla. -- Twitter has done some amazing things. It has assisted in revolutions. It has beamed the droppings of Charlie Sheen's mind directly into our smartphones.
Unfortunately, Twitter has also given sports writers the opportunity to make statements they'll almost instantly regret. When Kentucky guard Brandon Knight took an ill-advised shot from the elbow with 95 seconds remaining in a nail-biter against Princeton, I tweeted this (sorry in advance for the 140-character grammar.): "Shots like the one Knight just missed are the kind freshmen take," I wrote. "Why you can't hitch your wagon to only one-and-dones."
It seemed appropriate at the time. The miss dropped Knight to 0 for 7 from the field. The potential lottery pick had just opened the door for Princeton to end his NCAA tournament career after one game. So when Knight blew past Kareem Maddox and flipped in the game-winner with two seconds remaining, I had to send this crow-munching tweet. "Knight is forgiven," I wrote after the 59-57 win. "That's why you hitch your wagon to one-and-dones. And why I'm an idiot."
Kentucky coach John Calipari is equally conflicted -- even if his recruiting doesn't show it. The quote at the top of this column came from Wednesday's pregame news conference. Here's what Calipari said Thursday: "I have all the faith and confidence in the world in [Knight]. I'll be honest. I thought he had made one shot. I didn't think he was an 0-for. But that being said, he's a winner."
That's the paradox of the one-year-wonder teams Calipari has fielded. They are led by freshmen who are apt to take ill-advised shots or make the wrong pass because of a lack of experience. But those freshmen -- be they Knight, John Wall, Tyreke Evans or Derrick Rose -- are the best players on the floor. They are one-and-dones by virtue of their athletic superiority.
Individually, Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb are superior to every player on Princeton's roster, but those three combined for 19 points on 8-of-23 shooting Thursday. Knight had a chance to make the game-winner because Josh Harrellson -- Kentucky's lone senior -- scored 15 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and made four steals. Harrellson, who transferred to Kentucky in 2008 from an Illinois junior college, didn't play significant minutes until this season. If future none-and-done Enes Kanter hadn't been declared permanently ineligible by the NCAA, Harrellson might never have played anything but garbage time. Kentucky's other savior Thursday was junior Darius Miller, who scored 17 points and never seemed fazed by the adversity the Wildcats faced for 40 minutes.
The question facing Calipari is this: Can he win a national title recruiting only players who will leave after a year? Or does he need a few more program players? Those are the glue guys who grow and learn during a three- or four-year stay in college and pass that knowledge to the one-and-done stars to help accelerate their learning curves. Those are the players who take over when the freshman stars get the jitters or have an off-night.
The Memphis team that came an overtime from winning the 2008 national title was unquestionably driven by Rose, but his fellow starters were two juniors (leading scorer Chris Douglas-Roberts and Antonio Anderson) and two seniors (Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier). Maybe Calipari's hope is that some freshman stars won't quite live up to their hype and will decide to return for additional years. But lately, his recruiting has been too good. Even a reserve from last year's freshman class (Daniel Orton) was a first-round pick.
Last year's Kentucky superteam got stuffed in the Elite Eight by a West Virginia team led by a senior (Da'Sean Butler), a fourth-year junior (Joe Mazzulla) and a sophomore (Devin Ebanks). This year's Kentucky team has the talent to beat anyone in the tournament and hasn't lost since Feb. 23, but with a nucleus of freshmen, the Wildcats could just as easily lose to anyone left in the tournament.
But who knows? Maybe overwhelming freshman talent plus a few program guys like Miller and Harrellson will be enough. Thursday, the glue held Kentucky together long enough for the stars to shine.
"Our veterans ... kept us where we had a chance to win," Calipari said. "How we escaped, I still have to go watch the tape to figure out."