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By LARRY VAUGHT
NEW ORLEANS Ã¢â‚¬â€ So much for KentuckyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s lack of postseason experience.
The No. 2 Wildcats certainly played like a team on a NCAA championship quest here Thursday night when they routed East Tennessee State University 100-71 in the NCAA South Region. Not bad for a team that doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have any NCAA experience with its top eight players.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Hopefully, weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re this good. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not sure if we are, but weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll see if we can keep it going,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Kentucky coach John Calipari.
For a bunch of NCAA newbies, Kentucky made it look easy Ã¢â‚¬â€ something other highly seeded teams (Vanderbilt, Georgetown, Villanova, Baylor) couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t do in the opening round of the tourney. If anything, KentuckyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s play was reminiscent of how the Cats used to dismantle opponents, especially in the early rounds, when Rick Pitino had the Cats on their dominant NCAA run a few years ago.
Granted, ETSU is no Kansas Ã¢â‚¬â€ the nationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s No. 1 team Ã¢â‚¬â€ and no 16 seed had ever knocked off a top seed in the opening round. But Kentucky made this look easy, and maybe thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s why Big Blue fans who flocked to Nashville in record numbers last week stayed away from here to hopefully save money for a Final Four trip to Indianapolis in two weeks.
ETSU coach Murry Bartow made it sound like the UK fans might be smart.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Kentucky jumped out on us. Our scouting report said they couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t make 3Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s and they made 15 of them. So, obviously, if the rest of the tournament they shoot the ball the way they did tonight, theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re obviously going to be a very tough out. Tough to beat,Ã¢â‚¬Â Bartow said.
Yes, they will. The Cats were 15-for-33 from 3-point range. Eric Bledsoe was 8-for-9 to break the UK NCAA record that current staff member Tony Delk set when he made seven in the 1996 national title game win over Syracuse.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Tony who?Ã¢â‚¬Â Bledsoe joked.
It was that kind of night for the Cats. Everything went KentuckyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s way in this game from John WallÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s banked 3-pointer to Ramon HarrisÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ line drive 3-pointer to numerous other bounces. But Kentucky didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t need any luck in this game because it played like a vastly superior team. The Cats went on an early 14-0 run Ã¢â‚¬â€ with DeMarcus Cousins watching from the bench Ã¢â‚¬â€ to take a 23-10 lead, and the game was never close again.
What this game might have shown is that the NCAA tourney will actually bring out the best in UK much like it did North Carolina last year when the talented Tar Heels rolled to the championship.
KentuckyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s focus did not always stay sharp during the season, one reason it didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t win more games by big margins. However, that was not a problem here Thursday night.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I think we could actually be getting ready to play our best. We just have to stay focused and not let anything distract us,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Bledsoe, who had a career-high 29 points.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We are kind of excited. This is big deal. The last couple of years we didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t make it to the tournament, so this is nice. I know Kentucky was in NIT last year and fans didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t like that.Ã¢â‚¬Â
But what about the so-called pressure of no NCAA experience combined with expectations so many have for this team to win it all?
Ã¢â‚¬Å“It ainÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t no pressure. We have had high expectations all season. We just have to play and stay focused like we did tonight. If we do, we are fine,Ã¢â‚¬Â Bledsoe said.
Next on Saturday night will come Wake Forest, which beat Texas 81-80 in overtime in a game that ended at 12:30 a.m. today, thanks to a running 15-foot jump by guard Ish Smith with less than two seconds to play. A win in that game would send UK to Syracuse for the East Region semifinals next week.
Yet Bartow had a big warning for Wake Forest Ã¢â‚¬â€ or any future Kentucky opponent.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“When I saw the draw, I knew a lot about their talent level, and I knew a lot that they were really good offensively. I just didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know they were so good on the defensive end,Ã¢â‚¬Â Bartow said after his team went 23-for-64 from the field and had 11 shots blocked.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“They were the best defensive team in the SEC. They were the best offensive team in the SEC, and they probably got the most talent in the SEC. So if they start making shots the way they made them tonight, theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re obviously going to be very hard to beat.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“They can get to the paint. TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve got a great transition game, and they can really guard. TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re one of the best rebounding teams in the country. So if the perimeter jump shots are going down, they are going to be pretty hard to beat.Ã¢â‚¬Â
And the lack of tourney experience wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t matter one bit.