Bob Ford: High expectations for Kentucky in Final Four

(right) of Kentucky. Kidd-Gilchrist, of Somerdale, is expected to be a top-3 NBA pick. MARK CORNELISON / Lexington Herald-Leader
(right) of Kentucky. Kidd-Gilchrist, of Somerdale, is expected to be a top-3 NBA pick. MARK CORNELISON / Lexington Herald-Leader (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Doron Lamb)
Posted: March 31, 2012

NEW ORLEANS - Out on the wide streets and among the narrow alleys of a town in constant motion, the blue train of University of Kentucky followers covers more ground than all the others combined.

There is the feel of an impending coronation among those who have journeyed to the Man Cave of America to watch their Wildcats finish off a season that was always supposed to end exactly here, but not until late Monday night amid a shower of that ubiquitous blue confetti.

And, well, that's probably the way it's going to go. Having the best team is not always a reliable predictor of outcome, but it beats going with signs of the zodiac.

Standing between Kentucky and the championship game is a little intrastate skirmish that is getting a lot more attention than a blowout deserves. Maybe Louisville coach Rick Pitino can keep the first semifinal on Saturday night from getting totally out of hand, but his plan to pressure and run with the Wildcats is a dangerous strategy, and he knows that better than anyone.

Kentucky vs. Louisville is great for the hype machine and great for the residents of the Commonwealth of Kentucky who really do care about the rivalry, but it's probably a concept that even had to be explained to the players involved. Only one player in the regular playing rotation of either team - Darius Miller of the Wildcats - is actually a native.

The other 12 guys who see significant playing time for Louisville and Kentucky are the usual array of mercenaries who choose their collegiate stopover based on everything except where they happened to grow up. And when it comes to attracting talent, especially the elite talent that comes on a one-year lease agreement, no one does a better job than Kentucky coach John Calipari.

Kentucky starts three freshmen and two sophomores and, particularly if the Wildcats win the championship, it would be no surprise if all five are selected in the NBA draft. Forwards Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are projected to be two of the first three picks.

"If you're a player thinking of going to the NBA right away, Kentucky's going to be on your immediate list," Pitino said. "They've done a great job. They [have] back-to-back Final Fours. So his way is working."

It works because the NBA and the league's players' association mandated that rookies can't enter the league until one year after their high school class graduated. Those can't-miss players could do something else with the intervening season between high school and the pros, but - what the heck - why not win a national championship?

Calipari puts his kids in the pros and the players are aware of that. This is his third season at Kentucky, and there are nine guys in the NBA from his first two years. If another five - or six, counting Miller - make the jump this year, Kentucky could have its own NBA team and a decent taxi squad as well. (To understand the frenetic pace of the program, it is worth noting that Miller, a senior, has had 40 teammates at Kentucky.)

Playing the recruiting game this way comes at a cost sometimes, because the biggest prizes aren't always focused on school. Getting them eligible and keeping them eligible is someone else's job, but the failures reflect on the coach. Calipari doesn't mind walking the tightrope. His two previous Final Four appearances - with Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 - were both eventually vacated by the NCAA because of rule violations. Marcus Camby took money from an agent in the first case, and there was some finagling with the SAT scores of Derrick Rose in the second.

Calipari was not directly implicated in either case, but did have to return his $250,000 Final Four bonus and, according to the Associated Press, paid $50,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by some Memphis fans.

A couple of bumps in the road, but whatever.

Calipari said he is always asked if it is hard to deal with the constant turnovers and the endless grind of recruiting, not to mention managing the conflicting egos of so many superstars.

"I tell them what's hard is coaching bad players," he said.

Whatever problems he has, that usually isn't among them. The Wildcats are positioned to retool regardless of how many stars are lost to the draft. Top recruits Shabazz Muhammad, Nerlens Noel, and Friends' Central's Amile Jefferson are among a sizable group of potential Kentucky players waiting to see how many minutes will be available next season.

And on it goes. The story line will be a little spicier for Kentucky and Louisville - certainly more than for Ohio State and Kansas in the other semifinal - but the bottom line will probably be the same: The better players win.

Kentucky has them, even if they are just passing through like the long line of blue-festooned cars that roar down Canal Street heading for somewhere better.


Contact Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, read his blog at philly.com/postpatterns and read recent columns at philly.com/bobford

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