Top-seeded 'Cats shoot their way into Sweet 16

Pat Forde
Yahoo! SportsMarch 18, 2012

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – If there was one round-of-32 NCAA tournament game that NBA scouts wanted to watch, this was it: Royce White of Iowa State against a front line of future pros at Kentucky.

White is the most unique player in college basketball, an amazing amalgam of strength, skill and explosiveness. UK center Anthony Davis has the most potential, a blossoming offensive player and established defensive terror. Kentucky forwards Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are first-round picks whenever they feel like putting their names in the draft.

They met in a Yum!my matchup in the Yum! Center on Saturday night. The result: White improved his draft stock, but the Wildcats improved their chances of winning a national title with an 87-71 victory. Next up: a Sweet 16 rematch with Indiana, the only team to beat Kentucky in the regular season.

White did things to Kentucky's front line that no one has done all season. He went around Jones like he was a totem pole. He dunked with Davis trying to block it – and Davis blocks everything. He drove the ball 94 feet and punched it home while five Wildcats looked on in trepidation – nobody was sprinting to take a charge from that runaway rhino.

"I have a football body," said White, who is 6 feet 8 and 240 pounds. "I wouldn't want to step in front of me, either."

"Royce," Kentucky coach John Calipari said, "is Charles Barkley."

The Less-Round and More-Sculpted Mound of Rebound finished with 23 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals. And if the Cyclones' perimeter shooters had made more than three of their 22 3-point attempts, that assist total would have been higher.

"He's special," said Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, who played 10 years in the NBA and worked in the Minnesota Timberwolves' front office. "He's a difference-maker. He's as good as I've seen."

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The problem for Iowa State was that Kentucky is as good a team as Hoiberg has seen in this 2011-12 season. On a night when his Cyclones competed like crazy, they still were steamrolled by the torrid Wildcats.

"If they play like this," Hoiberg said, "they won't be beat. When they're hitting shots like that, it's pretty impossible to beat them."

[Sunday look: Eight more teams will advance to the Sweet 16]

Kentucky made 10-of-20 3-point shots against the Cyclones. The 'Cats made their first six "3s" of the second half – five of them after Iowa State had tied the game at 42 and induced a rare quiet spell from the boisterous blue crowd in the building. At a time when you might expect the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament to start feeling some pressure, the 'Cats instead started feeling their oats.

They went on a 20-2 run to extinguish all Iowa State hopes. In the process they torched the Yum! Center nets.

Doron Lamb made five 3-pointers. Darius Miller made three. And blossoming freshman point guard Marquis Teague made shots everywhere while scoring a career-high 24 points.

"We're all feeling it right now," Lamb said. "We can't lose when we're all making shots."

The only 'Cat who isn't making shots these days is Kidd-Gilchrist. He has scored a total of 16 points in Kentucky's past three games as opponents have deciphered the limitations to his offensive game.

"He's fine," Calipari said. "He's in there [the locker room] as happy as anybody."

[Also: Another No. 2 stunner: Lehigh upsets Duke in NCAA tournament]

He should be, since there really isn't that much pressure on any individual Wildcat to produce offensively on a given night. Even with precious little production from an All-American such as Kidd-Gilchrist, it hasn't slowed the Kentucky express one bit.

That's because there are so many other options. A Kidd-Gilchrist slump coincides with a Teague surge. An Iowa State rally is answered by a Darius Miller spree. And when teams obsess over trying to stop Kentucky's altitude game – lobs to Davis and Jones – that's when they commit the cardinal sin of leaving Lamb a sliver of daylight on the perimeter.

Hoiberg knew his team had to pick its poison in game-planning for Kentucky, and he chose wisely: make the 'Cats beat them from the perimeter. He pointed out that UK was 15-for-63 from the 3-point line in its previous four games, so the Cyclones logically decided to see whether that struggle would continue one more game.

It didn't.

"Everybody, they want to talk about our 3-point shooting," Calipari said. "We're one of the best in the country. We just don't shoot a lot [of 3-pointers]. We don't shoot a lot because we get to the rim, we throw lobs, we play different. We get a lot in transition.

"If you make us shoot '3s,' we will shoot them."

And, at least Saturday night, they will make them. On a great night for watching future pros, White was the player of the game – but he couldn't overcome a team full of them.

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