Kentucky plays like a champion

NEW ORLEANS – About an hour before Kentucky’s second-round matchup with Wake Forest, many of the Big Blue fans in the crowd simultaneously erupted in cheers with no prompting from the public address announcer.

They were following the score of the Kansas game and they knew the significance: The Jayhawks’ shocking loss meant the Wildcats immediately became title favorites.

Eric Bledsoe and Kentucky got up early and had some fun as they blew out Wake Forest.
(Chris Graythen / Getty Images)

In the wake of Kentucky’s 90-60 trampling of ninth-seeded Wake Forest in the East Regional on Saturday night, maybe the only person not ready to anoint the Wildcats as the team to beat is their sandbagging coach. In fact, John Calipari scoffed at the notion of Kentucky as the favorite even though his team beat its first two NCAA tournament opponents by a combined 59 points.

“I don’t know if we’re the overwhelming favorite,” Calipari said. “Everyone was picking us to lose today. They were saying we’d be the first No. 1 out. How do the talking heads change overnight? With one game? Come on. We’re still a bunch of freshmen and sophomores playing in our second NCAA tournament game.”

If Calipari actually fooled anyone into believing that his ultra-talented team was an underdog Saturday night, Kentucky’s scintillating performance against Wake Forest probably means the shelf life on that sob story has run out. The Wildcats sank their first 11 shots of the second half and 23 of their first 25 two-point attempts in the game, elevating their field-goal percentage as high as 76.3 percent with 12 minutes left in the game.

At the least, it’s probably safe to say the rest of Kentucky’s NCAA tournament opponents will go back to slowing down the pace, playing zone defense and trying to beat the Wildcats in a half-court game. A Wake Forest team boasting perhaps the nation’s fastest point guard tried to run with the Wildcats, but Ishmael Smith and the Demon Deacons did not generate enough easy buckets and gave up far too many transition dunks to remain competitive.

“That’s as good of a team as we’ve played against in the 10 years I’ve been here,” Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio said. “They really challenge your transition defense, they really challenge you on the backboard and they’ve got a lot of guys who can really score the ball.”

Fearful that his team wouldn’t be able to focus on its matchup, Calipari forbade his players from checking the Kansas score once they arrived at the arena even though they had watched the first half on TV at their hotel. As a result, the Wildcats insist they didn’t learn that Northern Iowa had finished off the upset until after their game against Wake Forest ended.

“I wanted to know, but [the coaches] wouldn’t tell us,” guard John Wall said. “They said to focus on our game. And I think that was great because if we had focused on Kansas losing, we would have come out lackadaisical.”

It’s easy to forget that Kentucky had early turnovers and missed 3-pointers and trailed 8-2 and led only 29-24 late in the first half because the deficit snowballed so quickly on Wake Forest. Gaudio gambled by reinserting star forward Al-Farouq Aminu in the game with two fouls early in the first half; Aminu was whistled for his third with 11:39 left before halftime, putting more pressure on Smith to create shots for himself and his teammates.

Instead of having Wall expend energy trying to stay with Smith defensively, Calipari had guards Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Liggins share the assignment. Wall had 14 points and seven assists, and his teammates limited Smith to two points on 1-of-9 shooting, a big reason the Kentucky lead ballooned to 16 by halftime and 31 with 12:41 left in the game.

Among the Kentucky diehards who stayed until the final buzzer were a trio of A-list celebs sitting behind the Wildcats’ bench: basketball power broker Worldwide Wes, rapper Drake and, of course, actress Ashley Judd. All three were on their feet applauding when walk-ons Josh Harrellson and Mark Krebs scored their first NCAA tournament buckets.

In the post-game locker room, the Wildcats were asked whether anything changes now that they’re the favorites because Kansas is out.

“I don’t think that adds any pressure,” guard Darius Miller said. “As long as we play the best we can, that’s all we can control.”

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Updated Sunday, Mar 21, 2010