HOUSTON—John Calipari still winces over the last time his Kentucky Wildcats played Connecticut.
“They hammered us,” he said earlier this week when asked about UConn's 84-67 rout of Big Blue on Maui back on Nov. 24. “I don't know what the final score was, but it felt like 50.”
Naturally, Huskies coach Jim Calhoun saw it a wee bit differently as he prepared for tonight's rematch in the Final Four following the Butler-VCU semifinal.
“The only thing important about that game today is that it was an early indication of what we could be and maybe what John needed to fix,” said Calhoun on Friday inside Reliant Stadium. “But we're a different team and John has a different team.”
But can the Wildcats (29-8) be 18 points different against a UConn team that's 30-9, has won nine straight and arguably has the best player in college hoops in junior guard Kemba Walker, who torched UK for 29 in Maui?
“Kemba Walker killed us,” said guard DeAndre Liggins, who is expected to be the first Cat to attempt to slow down Walker's 26.7 NCAA tourney scoring average.
“We played a bad game. We just want to come out and play better Saturday.”
UK played so bad in Maui that it suffered the worst loss of Calipari’s two-year career in Lexington. But Calhoun is also right that neither UK nor UConn strongly resemble the teams that traveled to the islands.
After losing three conference road games to teams that failed to make the tourney's 68-team field — Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss — the Wildcats called a team meeting following the overtime defeat at Arkansas in late February.
“It puts you in a crisis mode,” said Calipari. “When we lost to Arkansas, let me tell you what we had left: Florida at home, Vandy at home and at Tennessee. If we lose all three, maybe we’re out of the tournament.”
Instead, they haven’t lost since, winning 10 straight, including last week's shocking defeats of overall No. 1 seed Ohio State and longtime nemesis North Carolina in the East Regional final.
And as good as Walker's been, UK freshman guard Brandon Knight has made plenty of his own headlines, hitting game-winners against Princeton in the opening round and Ohio State in the Sweet 16 before knocking down the final go-ahead 3-pointer against the Tar Heels on Sunday.
“We’ve gotten a lot better [since the UConn loss],” said Knight. “We were still learning at that time. We were still trying to figure out where we needed to be and what we needed to do.”
Josh “Jorts” Harrellson, the Cats’ suddenly productive 6-10 senior center, said he knows what UK needs to do to advance to Monday night's national championship game.
“What we learned is Kemba is going to get his 30,” said Harrellson, who’s averaging more than 14 points and nine rebounds in the tournament. “You just have to limit the other guys from scoring.”
But can they limit them enough to erase the 17 points that they lost by 18 1/2 weeks ago?
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...