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Freshmen Wildcats Step Easily Into Storied Tradition


It is the last day of March, but there's still another weekend of March Madness to come. Four teams gather in Dallas this weekend for the Final Four. If you go strictly by seeding, the University of Kentucky is the longest shot to win the men's college basketball title. In fact, though, the eighth-seeded Wildcats suddenly are a very hot favorite after yesterday's thrilling win over Michigan in the Elite Eight.

Once again, head coach John Calipari has brought a freshman-heavy team to the brink of a championship. Kentucky will start five freshmen in the Final Four, the first team to do that since Michigan and the Fab Five won - or did it, rather, in 1992. NPR's Tom Goldman has been covering the tournament and joins me now. Hi, Tom.


SIEGEL: Terrific win yesterday over Michigan. Guard Aaron Harrison won it with a three-point shot with 2.3 seconds left, and that was just the latest Kentucky drama in the tournament. Remind us of what the Wildcats have done.

GOLDMAN: They have won three extremely tough games in the incredibly difficult Midwest region. They beat Michigan, as you say, Louisville, Wichita State - all were in last year's Final Four and all were really good this year. I'm going to throw some telling stats at you from those three games. Kentucky won by an average of 3.3 points in the last seven minutes of those games - we'll call that crunch time - the Wildcats were a combined 20 for 24 from the free throw line. They committed a total of two turnovers. Now that sounds like a calm, disciplined, fundamentally sound team. Not bad for a bunch of teenagers.

SIEGEL: And I take it that that is not what people saw in the regular season from Kentucky.

GOLDMAN: At times, we saw a very different team, a team that struggled. Head coach John Calipari admits even he struggled. It took the team a lot longer than Calipari's freshman-heavy group two years ago that roared out of the gate all the way to the title. This is the risk, the dilemma when you recruit bunches of high school stars and throw them together and let them play as freshmen, which has become the Calipari way since he took over Kentucky in 2009. After yesterday's win over Michigan, he talked a bit about the struggle. Here's that tape.

JOHN CALIPARI: It's hard when all seven of them scored 28 a game in high school to give up something, and then you're looking at the other guy. And when they all just settled in and lost themselves in the team, the game became easier. They became better. They had more fun. They became more confident. And all of a sudden, this is what you have. But it took us four months.

SIEGEL: So, Tom, what did John Calipari do over those four months as coach?

GOLDMAN: Well, he earned his salary, that's for sure. He coached hard, but not just X's and O's. He says he coach things like emotion and energy, body language, and unselfish play. In a way, Robert, he had to break down these guys who'd been stars at every level that they played and teach them some of his basic truths - that less is more, as he likes to say, and that the goal is to surrender to the team. Now, they've finally done that and Calipari says now all he has to do is coach basketball, which is a ton easier.

SIEGEL: Is that really so different from what other successful coaches do?

GOLDMAN: You know, not really as far as techniques. Many college coaches nurture incoming freshman stars, teach them the college game, but not in bunches like Calipari. He has totally bought into the current system where the best players are one and done, as they say. He goes out, recruits as many stars as he can, and he gets a lot because they see his success in recent years and they know that Kentucky and Calipari are the best way to the NBA. And so he has to kind of reinvent the wheel with a new group every year. And the learning curve is fast. He says part of the process at Kentucky is failing fast and failing often.

SIEGEL: There are critics, though, who say that what he's doing is bad for the game, no?

GOLDMAN: Oh, yeah. Yeah. You know, they see him as a bit of snake oil salesman, a guy whose previous teams at UMass and Memphis were touched by scandal, that now he's embracing a bad system. The critics say that one and done, you know, defeats the whole purpose of teaching and creating better basketball players and young men, although it really seems as if Calipari is doing that.

He has said he doesn't necessarily like the system he's taking advantage of. He'd like to see players stay longer. There is talk of raising the age requirement for entry to the NBA from 19 to 20, which would keep some players in school for two years rather than one. But, you know, right now, that's just talk. And, Robert, John Calipari has titles to win.

SIEGEL: OK. Thanks, Tom. That's NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman on the Kentucky Wildcats and the Final Four. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.