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By LARRY VAUGHT
Terrence Jones was trying to describe his feelings when teammate DeAndre Liggins hit a clutch 3-point goal in the final minute Sunday that made sure Kentucky beat North Carolina to advance to the Final Four.
However, JonesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ explanation for that shot probably also perfectly summed up what coach John Calipari has been able to do with this team and why the Cats have gone from a team that couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t win a close game to a team now favored to win the national championship.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We have a lot of players that can knock down shots and heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s one of them. Him just having the heart to take it and make it is the difference between how we are now and two months ago,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Jones about Liggins. Ã¢â‚¬Å“A lot of guys would not have taken that shot, but now everybody is playing with so much confidence and it is fun.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Yes, winning is fun. But that heart is what has made this team different and it is why this has been such a magnificent coaching job by Calipari even though heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll likely get little credit nationally at the Final Four. Instead, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll again be blasted because both Massachusetts and Memphis, two teams he also took to the Final Four, had to vacate those appearances for NCAA infractions. Never mind that Calipari was not implicated in any wrongdoing. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s still enough to tarnish his reputation nationally and keep many from appreciating what heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s done this year.
Just ask Jones, who has gone from a freshman who took 10 or more shots in 17 of UKÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s first 18 games to a player who has taken 10 shots in only one of four NCAA games.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“This is the type team we have now. Everybody is playing with confidence and is not afraid to shoot. Everybody is going to have a time to go on a streak because we have a lot of dudes that can score the ball on this team. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just great to have that balance,Ã¢â‚¬Â Jones said.
ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s also great to have a coach who has developed that balance. Going into the season, no one could have thought Josh Harrellson would be the player he is. But donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t forget about LigginsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ improved offensive play. Or the consistency and clutch playmaking Darius Miller has provided.
Remember when Brandon Knight missed game-winning shots? Now heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Mr. Clutch for the Cats.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I told those guys when he (Calipari) first came here that he would take you to the rainbow. He just did it,Ã¢â‚¬Â UK strength coach Rock Oliver, a long-time Calipari friend, said after SundayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s win over North Carolina put UK in the Final Four. Ã¢â‚¬Å“This is maybe the best coaching job anybody has ever done period. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s unbelievable what he has done.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“For once I am speechless. There is not a group that deserves it more and I was here when we had Final Four teams (under Rick Pitino). This group deserves everything they get because John has them on the brink of greatness.Ã¢â‚¬Â
HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s right. The same team that lost on the road at Mississippi and Arkansas Ã¢â‚¬â€ a win that couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t even save coach John PelphreyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s job at Arkansas Ã¢â‚¬â€ is now on the brink of winning a national title. If it can avenge an earlier loss to Connecticut and then beat the Butler-Virginia Commonwealth survivor, UK will have its first championship Ã¢â‚¬â€ and most unlikely Ã¢â‚¬â€ since 1998.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s great to be part of this tradition, and itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s surprising UK has not even been to the Final Four since 1998,Ã¢â‚¬Â Jones said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“There have been some close calls, but this is a tough tournament. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hard to get to the Final Four. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not an easy task. There are a lot of great teams and it just takes one tough night and your season ends.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Coach Cal was always believing in us. He was the first one to believe in us. The whole year he felt we would be in this situation. Just having coach Cal believe in us and mentoring us and getting us through everything is why we are here now.Ã¢â‚¬Â
ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s doubtful you can find any Kentucky fan complaining now because UK didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t win the Southeastern Conference championship Ã¢â‚¬â€ remember the uproar when Calipari said playing well in March meant more to him than winning the SEC title. Instead, Calipari used the painful road losses in conference play as teaching tools to get the Cats back to the promised land.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“This team is really good. You are supposed to do it at Kentucky. At the other two schools (UMass and Memphis), you are not supposed to do it. As a matter of fact, you are supposed to do more, from what they tell me at Kentucky,Ã¢â‚¬Â Calipari said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I am just trying to coach these kids. My goal as a coach every year I have coached is that I want my team playing its best basketball in March. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s what I do.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“What I’ve learned at an early age is just to continue to make this about these kids, to continue to try to make kids better, and then have them buy into team whether it’s team defense or being unselfish. But it still comes back to how do I get individual players better? Not just one or two guys, but the entire team. How does each individual improve? How do they feel unleashed?
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t practice long at the end of the season. An hour practice, thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s it. If they are not in shape by then, I have not done my job. If they donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know what to do, I have not done my job. I want them fresh and having fun. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s what I try to do. If thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s good enough to get us to advance, thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s fine. If not, we donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t.Ã¢â‚¬Â
This year he certainly unleashed his Cats at just the right time and turned a good team into a potential national championship team.