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Will UK Win It All Next Season? It’s Not Crazy Talk

John Clay of The Lexington Herald-Leader is studying the history books.  “What’s past is prologue,” seems to be his viewpoint for the day.

Bear with us, here.

As Clay points out, Kentucky lost to Arizona in the 1997 NCAA Tournament finals… in a domed stadium… partially because of bad free-throw shooting. 

On Saturday, they lost to UConn in the national semifinals… in a domed stadium… partially because of bad free-throw shooting.

See the connection?  And guess what happened in 1998, the year after UK lost that heartbreaker to Lute Olson’s Wildcats.  Yep, UK came back in ’98 and won the whole darn tourney.

So Cat fans can go ahead and book their trips to next year’s Final Four in New Orleans, right?  Not so fast, writes Clay:

Before the Big Blue Nation banks on another repeat of history, it’s a much different game these days.  Back then, (Nazr) Mohammed returned in ’98 for his junior year, helping the Cats to their seventh crown.  The same can’t be expected of (Terrence) Jones, whose uneven performances are more in tune with that of a young collegian, but whose skill set and upside share a certain kinship with most high NBA draft picks.

Same goes for Brandon Knight, the rookie point guard whose shooting touch betrayed the Floridian for much of the NCAA Tournament.  Knight’s bad-game/good-game yin and yang reared its ugly head again Saturday when the star guard missed 17 of his 23 shots.  But given the projected shallow draft pool for this summer, Knight could find it advantageous to jump now, instead of later.

Obviously, there might be a smaller number of UK returnees in 2012 than there were in 1998.  For that reason, the lessons of the previous year might not mean so much to what might be a new set of Wildcats next season.

But the fact that UK was back in the Final Four this past weekend — and that the talk in Lexington already centers upon returning next season — shows that John Calipari has already been worth his $3.9 million salary.

Love them or hate them, Kentucky is back on the national basketball scene.  While these kinds of year-out discussions of Final Four possibilities might be silly elsewhere, they can be conducted legitimately once more in Lexington.  Just like at Duke, North Carolina and Kansas.

UK is back.  Which means Calipari’s first mission has already been completed.

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SEC Headlines 4/2/2011 Part One

Kentucky and the Final Four

1. Kentucky vs. UConn – how the two teams match up.

2. The revenge factor. When these two teams met in Maui back in November, UConn won by 17 points.

3. Reasons to pick Kentucky….and reasons to not.

4. Keep your eye on the point guards this weekend.

5. John Calipari and Jim Calhoun - real mutual dislike.

6. They may not like each other – but there is some admiration.

7. It’s either Calipari’s first Final Four…or his third.

8. This season puts the “coach” in coach Cal.

9. Since the one-and-done rule was instituted, Calipari’s teams have averaged 33.5 wins a season.

10.  Brandon Knight is a success story, on and off the court.

11.  Charges of a secondary recruiting violation for a former Calipari assistant while UConn deals with with allegations of money and a recruit.

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SEC Headlines – 3/29/11 Part One

1.  Florida kicker Caleb Sturgis is close to being 100% after a back injury.

2.  Jon Gruden believes Charlie Weis will bring UF the best play-action passing game the best perimeter screen game in college football.

3.  Writer: Shaka Smart is not part of Billy Donovan’s coaching tree.

4.  Former Dennis Felton assistant Mike Jones has gone from Georgia to VCU… and the Final Four.

5.  Kentucky and UConn — who meet in the Final Four Saturday — both benefited from late-season losses.

6.  The Wildcats are now the favorite to win the whole NCAA tourney.

7.  Big Blue fans are snapping up the Final Four memorabilia.  (Nice photo, too.)

8.  South Carolina will hold its Pro Day for NFL scouts tomorrow.

9.  AD Mike Hamilton says of Cuonzo Martin: “We just knew he was the guy.”

10.  Ohmygodohymygodohmygod!  Pat Summitt learned of Martin’s hiring from ESPN.  Heads must roll!  (How did UT’s track coach find out?  The swimming coach?  And why must the women’s basketball coach be alerted?)

11.  The Vols want to win… and do it the right way.

12.  The people closest to Martin continue to talk him up.

13.  There will be no quick decision in Vanderbilt’s quarterback race.

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Bama’s Grant Has Built Two Final Four Teams This Year

The hottest name in the coaching world today is Shaka Smart.  VCU’s second-year coach has his Rams all the way through to the Final Four.  It’s a near-miracle run for a team that most ESPN pundits pointed to as the least deserving at-large team in the field.

But while America gushes over Smart’s run — and we at quietly murmur a warning: “Stan Heath” — some credit should be given to the guy who built the VCU team with which Smart is excelling. 

When Anthony Grant takes his Crimson Tide into its NIT semifinal game against Colorado tonight, Bama’s coach can know that he’s had a hand in two Final Four runs this year.  He built the roster for VCU’s journey and he’s coaxed 24 wins out of the roster he inherited — to a large degree — from Mark Gottfried.

At VCU, Grant recruited the Rams’ current juniors and seniors.  Here’s what Kansas Bill Self had to say about them after Sunday’s loss to VCU:  “You can usually tell who can really recruit, what programs do the best job recruiting, because they’re playing with the guys that you look at them when they’re juniors and seniors and think, ‘How in the world did they get them?’  VCU’s program has done that.”

Kevin Scarbinsky of The Birmingham News takes that comment, combines it with Grant’s record in his second year at Bama and says UA’s young coach will have the Tide in an NCAA Final Four “sooner rather than later.”

At Alabama, the only current starter signed by Grant is excellent freshman point guard Trevor Releford.  The rest of the main pieces were left behind by Gottfried.

“He left behind a nice nucleus, which Anthony has molded into his image defensively and intensity-wise and grittiness,” said ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla.  “It’s all Anthony Grant basketball now.”

Yes, it is.  And way things have played out might be even more impressive than had the coach built and taken one squad to a Final Four.  Grant showed that he can build a high-caliber roster at VCU.  Then he moved to a new school and has shown that he can coach-up the pieces he inherited.

We at aren’t ready to declare Grant to be one of the nation’s elite coaches yet.  At some point, he’ll have to take a team he’s built and coach it deep into the NCAA tourney.  And we also remember that John Pelphrey and Trent Johnson got off to fast starts in the SEC, too, only to cool quickly.  There are no guarantees.

But when it comes to Grant, there’s no denying that his work at Bama and his previous work at VCU certainly suggest the Crimson Tide program is headed in the right direction.

Next step: Tonight at 9pm ET versus Colorado at Madison Square Garden.

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Tennessee Signee Ware Still Asking For Release

Basketball prospect Kevin Ware is still requesting a release from the national letter of intent he signed with Tennessee in November.

“Yes I am,” Ware told the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The AJC’s story, which was posted at 3:15 eastern time on Monday afternoon, stated that Ware had not yet spoken to new Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin. Ware told the AJC he missed a call from Martin on Monday morning and then left a message with Martin when he missed Ware’s call later in the day.

Martin said Monday afternoon during his introductory press conference at about the same time that he had spoken to both Ware and point guard Chris Jones, who is UT’s other signee for the class of 2011.

It’s unclear if Martin and Ware have actually been able to speak. Both made it be known that they would like to speak soon, and Martin said on Monday that he would meet with Ware and Jones next week after the Final Four takes place in Houston.

Ware’s release doesn’t appear to have been granted to this point. He told the AJC that UT officials would like him to meet with Martin before a decision is made on Ware’s request for a release. Jones indicated the same last week during a conversation with MrSEC.

Ware has appeared anxious to find out more about Martin.

“He’s a good guy from what I’m hearing … good reputation, good background,” Ware told the AJC.

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Calipari, Liggins Lead UK Back To The Final Four

It’s been a while, but basketball royalty is returning to a familiar castle.  For the first time since 1998, Kentucky is headed to the Final Four.

Yesterday’s 22-point effort from an ever-improving Brandon Knight helped lead the Wildcats past North Carolina 76-69 to set up a national semifinal date with UConn in Houston next Saturday.  “We got Kentucky back,” said senior Josh Harrellson.  “A lot of people doubted us.  A lot of people really didn’t think we’d be the team we are.  We really pulled it together as a team, and we’re back now.”

DeAndre Liggins might have had the biggest impact on yesterday’s game with three steals, four assists, 12 points and a key three-pointer with 35 seconds remaining.

Two years ago when UK took a risk and a PR hit by bringing in John Calipari and his reputation — fairly earned or not — the high-hopers in the Bluegrass State would have told you they expected Elite Eights and Final Fours.  That’s just what Coach Cal has given them in his two years in Lexington.  And he’s done it quickly.

“I thought he was building toward it,” said outgoing UK president Lee Todd.  “But I didn’t think this was the year.”  The fact that Kentucky lost so much from last season — an entire starting line-up to the NBA, for example — makes this Calipari’s best-ever coaching job.  His team has gotten better as the season has rolled along.

(We pause here to remember all the crying and whining about UK’s tourney seed two weeks ago.  If your team is hot, the difference between a #3 seed and a #4 seed is microscopic.  As we said at the time, thank you very much.)

This trip will be Kentucky’s 14th to the Final Four.  Only UCLA (18), North Carolina (18) and Duke (15) have more.  It’s Calipari’s third — scratch that — first trip to the Final Four.  His previous trips in 1996 with UMass and in 2008 with Memphis were later vacated due to NCAA issues.

Congrats to the Cats for carrying the SEC banner all the way to Houston.

Some links:

This writer says Coach Cal has proven that he’s more than just a recruiter.

Calipari has convinced UK’s president that if a banner goes up in Lexington this year, it won’t come down.

Kentucky’s coach says he and UConn’s Jim Calhoun aren’t the best of buds.

The end of UK’s Final Four drought came with great emotion.

A number of notable Cat fans chimed in about the victory on Twitter.

Rapper Jay-Z and William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley were waiting for Calipari in UK’s lockerroom after the game.

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Calipari’s Win Over Florida On Saturday Was NOT His 500th

John Calipari won his 500th game as a college head coach when Kentucky knocked off Florida on Saturday.

Sort of.

While Calipari has indeed left a college basketball court a winner on 500 occasions, not all of those wins still go on his resume.  Gary Johnson, the head of Division I men’s basketball statistics has told The Lexington Herald-Leader that Coach Cal is actually 42 wins shy of 500 in the NCAA’s eyes.

Calipari’s final UMass squad was forced to vacate four postseason wins in the 1995-96 season (costing the Minutemen a Final Four appearance).  The coach’s final Memphis squad was forced to vacate 38 victories from its 2007-2008 season (costing the Tigers a Final Four appearance).

Add it up and you get 42.  Which means UK jumped the gun a bit when it presented Calipari with a gameball celebrating his 500th victory on Saturday.

But hang on to it, folks.  It shouldn’t take too long for Calipari to record another 42 wins in Lexington.

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SEC Headlines – 1/21/11

1.  East beat West again, but Florida had to struggle in an ugly 45-40 win at Auburn.  Very ugly.

2.  For the game, Florida shot 28% from the floor, but an 8-0 run at game’s end sealed the victory.  (The Gators’ shooting performance was reminiscent of Kentucky’s 24% effort against Georgetown in the ’84 Final Four.  It was painful to watch.)

3.  Stacy Searels’ move from Georgia to Texas is official.

4.  John Calipari expects Kentucky to be in a lot more close games this season.

5.  UConn’s Jim Calhoun should be very familiar with Bruce Pearl’s system when Tennessee visits Hartford tomorrow.

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Legends Return, but Don’t Stop There

Content provided by The Slophouse.

FAYETTEVILLE - Scanning a half-empty (or was it half-full?) crowd made it easy to spot some famous people at last night’s Arkansas-Oklahoma basketball game at Bud Walton Arena.

In attendance were Sidney Moncrief, Ron Brewer and Jim Counce from the 1978 Final Four team, and Clint McDaniel from the Razorbacks’ 1994 national championship team.

Scotty Thurman, who hit the shot to give Arkansas the lead for good in the 1994 national championship game, was on the bench in his first year as director of player development. Thurman was partially responsible for gathering the legends at the game, he said Wednesday while speaking to the Northwest Arkansas Tip-Off Club in Springdale.

Arkansas coach John Pelphrey said following the game it was important to have former players attending games and being around the program.

“Those guys are a huge part of what make it special to be a Razorback,” Pelphrey said. “We are so proud of our past and we celebrate it. I’m glad those guys were here. I’m certainly glad we could perform well enough to get a win. Those guys set a standard pretty high and we all try to live up to it.”

Now, the University of Arkansas needs to take it a step further and recognize the players by hanging several of their jerseys in the rafters of Bud Walton Arena. There are currently no jerseys hung at the arena, though Moncrief’s No. 32 and Corliss Williamson’s No. 34 have not been worn since they left the program. Others like Thurman, Brewer and Todd Day are among those deserving of such an honor from the school.

With Arkansas’ history in basketball and showcase of an arena, it’s shame this hasn’t been done already. Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, Duke’s Cameron Indoor Arena, North Carolina’s Dean Smith Center and UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion have rafters littered with jerseys from the past. While Arkansas doesn’t quite meet the standards those programs have set, it does have a rich basketball history with six Final Four appearances and a national championship trophy.

Not to mention, a ceremony celebrating one of the Razorbacks’ legends of the past would sell tickets – something the school desperately needs with crowds filling less than half the arena this year.

But for now, just having them back is a nice starting point. Here’s to hoping it is taken a step further, and soon.

For more visit You can follow Matt Jones on Twitter @NWAMatt.

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