A year later, John Calipari still can't put his finger on what went wrong. A week after eliminating the East Region's No. 1 and No. 2 seeds Kentucky arrived at the Final Four in Houston riding a wave of confidence the coach was sure would carry it to a national championship.
Terrence Jones and Kentucky lost to Connecticut by one in last year's semifinals
Kentucky barely resembled the team that had ousted Ohio State and North Carolina when it stumbled to a one-point loss against Connecticut in the national semifinals. The dream of a national title was gone, undone by factors that remain a mystery to Calipari.
“When the game started, about five minutes in I said, 'This isn't...we've got some guys (bug eyes) that weren't the same,'” Calipari said. “That's okay. First time for those guys and now it's the second time, they'll be fine. It's how are they going to teach these (freshman) watch the land mines.”
The Cats return to college basketball's biggest stage when they take on rival Louisville on Saturday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. The drama created by the heated in-state rivalry aspect of the Final Four showdown would seem to be distracting enough but Calipari is hoping he can eliminate further focus problems by learning from the preparation mistakes of a year ago.
The coach said he would seek the opinion of three Cats – Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller – who all played in the loss to the Huskies. The trio had mixed results in that game, with Lamb scoring 13 points and looking the least affected by the cavernous environment. Jones turned in a double-double with 11 points and 15 rebounds but never seemed to get comfortable after missing several early free throws on the way to missing all five of his attempts. Miller went 1-of-7 from the field (1-of-4 on three-pointers) and just four points and three rebounds in 26 minutes.
“We're going to talk a little bit about it with my team, especially the three or four returning players who played in the Final Four last year,” Calipari said. “Just say, 'something got us off kilter because we didn't player very well. What happened that we went out, I don't want to say gun shy, but we just weren't the same team that left New Jersey.' We'll talk about that.”
Further complicating the challenge of keeping a team focused during the build up to the Final Four are external factors like family and friends trying to get tickets, required media appearances and endless calls and text messages from friends. Kentucky has even had to put guards near Wildcat Lodge to shield the players against relentless autograph seekers. The school will go to even greater lengths to protect the team once it arrives in New Orleans late Wednesday.
“The reality is I dealt with tickets Sunday night and now I'm done. Tickets are done,” Calipari said. “The kids get 'X' amount of tickets, that's it, that's done.
“When we get down there we'll have security with us, a better job than we did last year (with that). We probably have five security people with us if they want to leave the hotel. No one is on their floor, no one. No one. Friends, family, no one. If you want to see them go down to the lobby. If you need to go out for something take a security person with you. We're handling it like we should be.”
Calipari hopes that will be enough to avoid a repeat of last year's Final Four experience.
No. 4 LOUISVILLE vs. No. 1 KENTUCKY
Final Four – National Semifinals
When: 6:09 p.m.; Saturday, Mar. 31
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome; New Orleans
TV: CBS; Radio: UK IMG Network
Last Meeting: Dec. 31, 2011 - @Kentucky 69, Louisville 62
Records: Louisville (30-9); Kentucky (36-2)