NEW ORLEANS - The players who will slip on their jerseys and step – literally – onto the Final Four stage on Saturday night have laced up their sneakers and gotten a run in on playgrounds, makeshift courts in ballrooms, and 30,000-seat arenas. They've shot on milk crates, goals with chain nets and titled rims.
The court at the Superdome is prepared for Final Four (photo by Darrell Bird)
None of those experiences can help prepare a player for hoisting shots in a 75,000-seat football-first facility with a raised court being slapped down at the 50-yard line. Even Kentucky's experience in monstrous Reliant Stadium in Houston at last season's Final Four provides little familiarity given only three of the Cats' who see significant time this season played in that game.
“The arena with these raised floors changed things somewhat and I think you've got to get in there and do as much shooting as you can do,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Last year, I didn't realize that. We played in a stadium. Maybe it’s an advantage for us. But the stadium floor wasn’t raised, and it makes it slightly different.”
Whether it was happenstance or a product of the cavernous backdrop behind the goals at Reliant Stadium Kentucky had its worst shooting performance of the 2010-11 season against Connecticut in the national semifinals. The Cats made just 33.9 percent of its shots and hit 9-of-27 three-pointers, but it was their 4-of-12 mark at the free throw line that kept them from defeating the Huskies and playing for the championship.
That said, the Cats were hardly the only team affected by the unusual setting in Houston. Connecticut's 46.9 percent clip against Kentucky was the only one of six team shooting efforts in three games to break 40 percent. Butler escaped its semifinal game with VCU despite shooting 35.6 percent and then managed just 18.8 percent in the title game. Connecticut won that night by shooting 34.5 percent.
The only UK player to figure out the backdrop was Doron Lamb, who made 5-of-10 shots, including 3-of-5 from beyond the arc. The rest of the Cats managed just 16-of-52 against the Huskies.
“It doesn't bother me,” Lamb said of the dome setting. “Everybody says you shoot different but it doesn't really bother me.”
Calipari said he intends to lean on Lamb's psyche to help the UK freshmen who haven't been on this type of stage handle the environment.
“It was funny. I looked at Doron in the locker room,” Calipari said. “Doron Lamb might have been the best player on the floor in that game. I said to him, 'Doron, why don't you figure out what you were thinking or feeling and tell the team.' Terrence Jones just busts out laughing and says, 'He won't know what to say. He just shoots balls. He's not saying anything.'”
Reliant Stadium was a cavernous backdrop at the 2011 Final Four
Calipari joked earlier in the week that he had a raised court erected in the Joe Craft Center practice gym to help prepare his team for the oddity of being higher than the benches and fans around them. Both coaches agreed that getting up as many shots as possible in the practices and shootarounds at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was critical.
“We worked on it today and we shot great today,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said Thursday. “What we did was we worked on a five-foot shot, a six-foot shot, a seven-foot shot. We worked our way out. Then we started scrimmaging and shot the ball great. I don't think it will be a major problem. It won't be for Kentucky because they shoot a lot of layups and dunks. That might be a problem for us but it won't be a problem for them.”
However it plays out on Saturday night, whichever team that can simplify the game back to the days when they grew up playing on any court they could fine will likely have an advantage.
“I would say you could play basketball wherever there is a hoop,” Louisville guard Chris Smith said.
There will be one – on a stage – in the Superdome.
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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)