Good morning, my friends. I hope you made it home safely after spending this past weekend in the town in which I make my home, but will never call my hometown. It was a fun stretch of basketball for the city of Tampa and our beloved Cats and one that saw Josh Harrellson continue to emerge as a consistent star for Kentucky. It was also a two-game stretch that turned his father, Doug Harrellson, into a fan favorite. Just as his son used passion, determination and making the most of opportunities that were thrown his way, Mr. Harrellson did the same, capturing the hearts of America with his brand of cheering and Big Blue support. When the victory against West Virginia was final, the elder Harrellson’s weekend work was done and he left the St. Pete Times Forum to cheers from fans and interviews with the local news. The big-time support shown over the weekend, along with the interesting story Darrell Bird told about his Home Alone-like struggle to get to Tampa and meet up with his son, made him a star. No matter what happens from here on out, you can be sure that Dough Harrellson and his son will be ready to make every day a Jorts Day, Jorts Day! For that, we celebrate him this morning. May more parents be just like you.
Now onto a few UK notes…
– Quick programming note: Kentucky and Ohio State will play at 9:45pm Friday. The game will air on CBS and will be called by Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg. Tracy Wolfson will be the sideline reporter. Apologies to those of you who wanted Jaime Maggio.
– We’ve nearly beat this into the ground at this point, but the victory over West Virginia again signified significant growth made by John Calipari’s team. For a team that relies heavily on freshmen and some inexperienced players, the whole season has been about development and growth and the Cats again progressed in key areas and, most importantly, putting together some of that “demonstrated performance” that Coach Cal talks about so frequently and lovingly. Kentucky again beat a physical team. They closed out a close game with free throws. They used an incredible defensive performance in the second half to overcome a deficit. And again, they did it largely without Terrence Jones, who scored only eight points before hitting some free throws at the end. Whether talking about his team collectively or individually, Coach Cal has impelled this group to gain their confidence through that demonstrated performance and Saturday was the eighth consecutive contest where they’ve done so. They’ll now face the tournament’s top overall team, but appear to be riding as high and playing as confidently as they have at any point all year. This team believes it will win every game and can confidently do so because they’ve done it in the last eight games in a variety of ways. The WVU contest wasn’t particularly pretty for the most part, but it was beautiful in terms of what they were able to achieve and how they were able to do it.
– With their victory and an absolute assault of George Mason by the Buckeyes, the Cats will now face Ohio State Friday for a chance to advance to the Elite Eight for the second consecutive year. There are a number of things that the Buckeyes do that will require Kentucky’s full attention defensively, but the most notable and most likely to be discussed is Ohio State’s ability to shoot the three. The Buckeyes have a seven-man rotation and five of those players shoot at least 33% from downtown, with John Diebler and his 50% on 212 attempts (267 total field goals) being the most imposing. Under Calipari, the Cats haven’t appeared to always defend the trifecta consistently and didn’t appear to do so against West Virginia, who found themselves consistently open from downtown Saturday. Part of that was likely gameplan, since the Mountaineers are not a very good three-point shooting team, but the Cats will need to step their game up against a Buckeyes team that knocked down 16-26 shots from deep against George Mason. Kentucky has guys who are long enough to make the Buckeyes work for their looks and contest them when they take them, but it’s not going to be like playing against a team like Vanderbilt, who only had one sniper. The Buckeyes have several. And they have what might be the best post player in the nation to offset them. It’s going to take another total team effort defensively if they want to advance for a shot at the Final Four.
– Along that same line, Kentucky’s chances could again be impacted significantly by the play of Eloy Vargas. I know, I can’t believe I said it either. The junior big man played only three minutes again for the Cats, but played decently enough in getting a bucket and a rebound, but committed two fouls. His importance against the Buckeyes will be measured by more than just giving a few minutes and possibly a couple very hard fouls in defense of Sullinger and Dallas Lauderdale. He could be a significant help in defending the three. In order for Kentucky’s perimeter players to defend the three-point bombs of the Buckeyes, they’ll have to extend more than they’ve sometimes shown themselves comfortable in doing and Vargas, who is the closest thing to a protector of the rim the Cats have (think about that), will need to be ready to stop penetration and alter shots. Terrence Jones and Josh Harrellson are decent enough at it and, admittedly, probably better than Eloy. But to beat this Ohio State team, the Cats are going to need some players to give them more than they have this year in most games. Eloy could be one of those players. If there was ever a time for him to take a major step forward and earn 10 quality minutes, this is it. Kentucky doesn’t have the luxury of a shot-blocker inside. They need Vargas and the other bigs to at least be shot and drive alterers to allow the perimeter players to continue to contest the deep shots. If that makes sense.
– Vegas released the opening line for Friday’s game and the Cats opened as a four-point underdog to the nation’s top team. The line already moved to Kentucky being a 5.5 point underdog and could conceivably move even more. It marks only the third time all season that Kentucky has entered a game as the underdog. In those previous two contests (Washington and Louisville), the Cats are 2-0. You can believe that John Calipari, who has made a career out of inspiring teams to overcome being disrespected or treated like the underdog, will be playing this up big time to his kids.
– With Notre Dame falling at the hands of a Florida State team that lost to Auburn earlier this season (*jinx alert, game still being played), the round of 32 ended with only two Big East schools advancing to the Sweet 16. This, of course, sparked a lot of debate on Twitter regarding whether or not the conference is the powerhouse that so many pundits have made it out to be all year long. It’s hard to argue the merits of the 11 teams that were given bids from the conference, but there’s no doubt that their performance has been abysmal. The two teams that made the Sweet 16, UConn and Marquette, beat fellow Big East schools to advance. Collectively, the conference dropped tournament games to the OVC, Colonial, Horizon and West Coast conferences and beat only one single-digit seed. Based on that alone, it’s hard to argue that the conference’s strengths weren’t a bit over-inflated. In fact, if their reputation were any more unnecessarily bloated, they would call it Christina Aguilera. Weak effort, Big East. Weak effort.
– Here’s a fun note for you: Brandon Knight needs only eight more points to pass John Wall for UK’s single season freshman scoring record. Wall had 616 points in 37 games. Knight has 609 in 35. I’ll say it again. The guy doesn’t get nearly the national recognition he deserves.
– Here’s another fun note for you: UK is the only D-1 school to have three different true freshmen score 30 points in a game. Brandon Knight had 30 Saturday, Doron Lamb had 32 in December against Winthrop and Terrence Jones had 35 in January against Auburn.
– If you missed the note earlier, Billy Gillispie has accepted the Texas Tech head coaching job. It seems like a great fit for Clyde, who has tons of Texas recruiting connections and can now return to a conference where he’s had success and a program that will allow him to work under far less of a spotlight than he did at Kentucky. His tenure in Lexington was a disaster, but he seems to be back on the right path in his personal life and ready to tackle a new job. Hopefully, this gig will work out for him and he can find success in doing what he loves again. I wish nothing but the best for Clyde.
– Don’t look now, but Patrick Patterson has three consecutive double-doubles for the Rockets. The former Cat has been on the upswing this month and has helped the Rockets earn four straight wins, pushing them to three games over .500 and on the cusp of a playoff berth. With his latest surge, Patterson has nudged his way past the double-digits season average in points (10.4) and is getting a lot more significant minutes. Couldn’t happen to a better guy.
That’s it for now. Make sure you stick around throughout the day as we get things going for the next set of NCAA Tournament action in Newark and close the book on a weekend in Tampa. As usual, the fun gets going on Kentucky Sports Radio at 10am on Talk Radio 1080. Make sure you check it out. In the meantime, soak in the neverending image of Ben Hansbrough taking a sneaker to his inflated head (via @bubbaprog).
See you in a few…