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It is the tradition at Connecticut too. Jim Calhoun, who at 68 is a year older than Smart and Stevens combined, won national titles in 1999 and 2004, both times emerging from a western region. Again this year the Huskies (30--9) were sent west, where they beat No. 2 San Diego State and No. 5 Arizona, which had blown out defending champion Duke two days earlier. The win over the Wildcats was the third-seeded Huskies' ninth straight in 19 days, starting with five victories in five days to take the Big East Tournament.
While Butler had to adjust to losing its best player, 6'1" junior point guard Kemba Walker blossomed into a star, and Calhoun has surrounded him with role players. "Kemba is expected to score 25," says assistant coach Kevin Ollie, a 13-year NBA veteran who returned to Storrs last summer. "It's his teammates' job to get him opportunities to succeed."
Says Calhoun, "I think there is a very thin line, especially with young kids, to label them as, You're just this. Because they all think they're really good. And a lot of them think they're Kemba and they're not."
The closest is 6'5" freshman Jeremy Lamb, whose father, Rolando, scored the winning basket for VCU to knock Calhoun's Northeastern team out in the first round of the 1984 NCAAs. Since the start of the Big East tournament, Lamb has poured in 16.0 points per game (4.9 above his average), hit 55.6% of his threes (up from 37.2%) and given Connecticut a second option after the transcendent Walker.
Lamb scarcely speaks when he's among his fellow players. "I'm a calm dude," he says. Classmate Shabazz Napier, a 6-foot guard, makes up for Lamb's chill. "Before every game he says the other team is a meal, like food on our plate," says freshman forward Tyler Olander. "And he says we've got to stab them with our forks and eat them up. Crazy stuff like that."
Senior guard Donnell Beverly averages just 8.8 minutes, and he has played just 13 in the tournament. Beverly had surgery on both hips last spring to relieve chronic pain; it's unlikely his game will ever return to an elite level. "But he and Kemba decided that last year's team had two seniors who were great players, Jerome Dyson and Stanley Robinson, and neither one of them wanted to be a leader," says assistant coach George Blaney. "Kemba and Donnell decided right after last season that that wasn't going to happen with this team."
Calipari starts with fresh pieces every season. It was a year ago that he stood in a cold hallway of the Carrier Dome in Syracuse before an Elite Eight game against West Virginia and talked about the new paradigm in his sport. His first Kentucky team started three freshmen, and all of them (Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe) plus one reserve freshman (Daniel Orton) would leave Lexington after one season as first-round draft choices. "Can you imagine if I had this team for three years?" Calipari said that morning. "Can you imagine? But the times, they are a-changin'. I'm just gonna have to keep recruiting. Figure out how many guys we're gonna lose, and replace them."
The next day the Wildcats bricked 28 of 32 threes against West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone and went home. Sure enough Coach Cal's 2010--11 season tipped off with more freshman stars: point guard Brandon Knight, 6'8" forward Terrence Jones and guard Doron Lamb. It is a terrific class, if not the Fab Five--esque collection of a year ago. Knight has been vital in the tournament, beating Princeton with an isolation drive in the first game and then, much more significantly, closing out the Wildcats' 62--60 Sweet 16 takedown of No. 1 overall seed and tourney favorite Ohio State on an 18-foot jumper with 5.4 seconds to play.
But Calipari has needed more. He has needed contributions from players who were in the program before he began importing future No. 1 picks. Like DeAndre Liggins, a wiry, 6'6" junior who emerged from a tough upbringing in Chicago. "Could easily be a kid out on the street," says Calipari. Liggins averaged 16.5 minutes as a freshman before Wall & Co. arrived. That number dipped to 15.3 last season. "I was usually on the white team," said Liggins, describing Kentucky's second-string practice unit. But his playing time has doubled this year. It was the scrappy Liggins who harassed Ohio State freshman point guard Aaron Craft in the Sweet 16. And it was Liggins who blocked a shot by North Carolina freshman Kendall Marshall before drilling a trey to give Kentucky a four-point lead en route to a 76--69 win on Sunday in Newark and a spot in the Final Four.
Even more unlikely has been the work of 6'10", 275-pound senior post man Josh Harrellson, who played a total of 403 minutes in his first two years (after a year at Southwestern Illinois junior college) and was previously most famous for the denim shorts he likes to wear (hence his nickname, Jorts). Had Turkish center Enes Kanter not been declared ineligible by the NCAA, Harrellson might never have been needed. And he might not have been available. After Kentucky's blue-white scrimmage last October, Harrellson was frustrated that Calipari wasn't complimenting him and tweeted, in part, "Just amazing to me I can't get a good job or way to go."