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Friends with bennies: A look at Kentucky with A Sea of Blue

So very close.
So very close.

We're less than 36 hours from UConn's Final Four matchup with Kentucky so it seemed like a good time to take a look at the Wildcats. Luckily Glenn from SB Nation Kentucky blog A Sea Of Blue was more than happy to help us out. I also answered some questions about UConn for him and we'll have that up later today.

TheUConnBlog: After last year's incredibly talented UK squad fell short of the Final Four, what was the mood going in to this year? How realistic did a Final Four seem?

A Sea of Blue: The mood could best be described as euphoric.  Kentucky has never gone 12 years without a visit to the Final Four.  The fact that the 'Cats fell just short four times during that period made it all the more frustrating, especially considering the strength and depth of last year's team.

Early in the year when the prevailing wisdom was that Enes Kanter would get to play later in the season, a deep run in March seemed reasonably likely.  But when Kanter got declared permanently ineligible, there might have been a few fans out there who still thought Kentucky could make it to the Final Four, but none of them commented on A Sea of Blue.  Optimism began to rise, though, when UK went on a six-game winning streak going into the NCAA Tournament.

TUB: Obviously these two teams are worlds different than they were back during the Maui meeting. What have been the biggest changes for Kentucky? What worries you the most about how UConn has changed?

ASOB: Kentucky is playing much better team basketball.  Back in the Maui Classic, Calipari called the team out for being "selfish."  That selfishness took a long time to abate, and it reared its head a few times in the SEC season.

Another huge factor has been the development of Josh Harrellson.  Despite his breakout game in Louisville, nobody really believed that he would lead the SEC in offensive rebounding and become on of the most efficient offensive players in the country, even if he didn't score a lot.  As the season wore on, Harrellson got better and better, and the team got better and better at utilizing him on both ends of the court.

Brandon Knight and DeAndre Liggins have both figured out some things that made them better, as has Terrence Jones.  Jones is no longer the black hole where possessions go to die, Liggins is playing with great confidence, and Brandon Knight has become very hard to defend.

TUB: Looking back at the November box score the thing that pops out the most to me is that Josh Harrellson only had six boards and didn't score a single point. Obviously that won't be the case on Saturday. What's gotten into him over the past three weeks to make him so dominant?

ASOB: Harrellson played 88 minutes all of last year, and was very soft around the basket.  He improved noticeably during the pre-season, but he was coming from such an irrelevant place that even his improvement seemed of only marginal utility.

Then came the Twitter Incident.  After the Blue-White scrimmage where Harrellson pulled down something like 26 rebounds, he tweeted out a comment critical of Calipari for not recognizing him for his achievement.  Calipari revoked his Twitter privileges and made him report to assistant coach Kenny Payne for 30 minutes before every practice to run suicides.  This punishment was to last 30 days, but Harrellson's stamina and conditioning improved so vastly during that first 30 days that he kept doing it all through the season.  Payne began also working with him in individual instruction,

Calipari has said that confidence is "demonstrated performance," and whether he invented that little truism or not, it was money for Josh Harrellson.  The more Harrellson demonstrated his improvement, the more he wanted to improve.  It snowballed into something of a monster, and now we see a player that may not be the second coming of DeMarcus Cousins, but he has made himself into a young man who will be playing basketball for a living somewhere after this season.

TUB: The one UK player who didn't struggle in November was Terrence Jones who was limited by foul trouble in the first half but absolutely killed the Huskies when he was on the floor. Can we expect more of the same this week?

ASOB: I don't think so. Jones' role in the offense has changed, and Kentucky does not play through him anymore. He still gets plenty of looks, and he will still take advantage of mismatches, but his role now has become secondary to Brandon Knight as the primary scoring option.

With that said, Jones has the green light to take advantage of mismatches, and with his ability to put the ball on the floor, he is usually a mismatch. He has also been shooting better from the perimeter, and playing with more confidence now that he isn't the primary offensive option. His defense and rebounding have always been good, and combined with the rise of Brandon Knight and Josh Harrellson, it has made him a much more confident player, even though he is scoring less.

TUB: UK and UConn don't have much of a history (they never met before 2006, though this will be their fourth matchup since then), but their coaches do. John Calipari and Jim Calhoun are long-time nemeses and Husky fans have a long-standing dislike of Calipari from back in his UMass days. Do UK fans even have an opinion of Calhoun or is the rivalry just a curiosity?

ASOB: Most Kentucky fans don't love Jim Calhoun.  Let's be honest, while Calipari may appear slick, brash, and in-your-face, Calhoun is an abrasive curmudgeon who seemingly validates all the Southern stereotypes of a rude Northeasterner.  Some of Calhoun's press conferences, because of his bluntness when under any type of duress, really add to this perception.  Calhoun has made a number of blunders in the press that have made him very easy to dislike for fans who don't get a lot of exposure to him.

When two coaches have a feud, that feud tends to also permeate the minds of their respective fans, so I think most Kentucky fans have come to adopt a bit of that mentality and vice-versa.  Myself, I have never been a raving fan of Calhoun, but I have nothing but respect for his accomplishments at UConn.  There is no question he is a Hall of Famer, and even though he can come off very unpleasant at times, he gets good kids who play hard for him and love him.  That tells me more about the man, and the coach, than his public persona and utterances.

TUB: Assuming UK wins on Saturday, who would you rather face in the final?

ASOB: No preference.  Both teams are tough, disciplined and dangerous.  Each has its own set of problems to overcome -- Butler its experience and their two stars, and VCU its pressure defense and quick players.

Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart are two quality coaches that are becoming stars in their mid-major roles, and I don't relish facing either of them for all the marbles, should we be fortunate enough to advance.

TUB: Give me your prediction for Saturday.

ASOB: I predict Kentucky continues its revenge tour and pulls out a close victory, 70-68.  Every one of Kentucky's games in the tournament has been close from beginning to end, and I see no reason why that will change facing a great UConn team.  Kemba Walker will probably score 25+ on us, and it will be a very hard fought, tough game for both teams.


Thanks a lot to Glenn for helping us out and be sure to check out A Sea Of Blue for Kentucky coverage.