Top teams countdown – No. 2: 2011-12 Cats combined talent with inexperience



By David Schuh | @KernelSchuh

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It’s rare in a system of one-and-dones to have much certainty of anything entering a college basketball season. There’s always the uneasiness of whether freshmen can win big games at this level and mesh into a team capable of competing for a national championship.

Strangely, that uneasiness was relatively quiet entering the 2011-12 UK season. Coming off of a Final Four loss the previous year, UK head coach John Calipari had a recruiting class coming in that rivaled any in history.

Teams have had great freshmen before, but what made last season different was the experience coupled with the talented youth. Sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb returned after starting on the team that lost in the national semifinal. Senior Darius Miller also played a crucial role coming off the bench throughout the season, averaging just fewer than 10 points per game.

The Cats showed exactly how dominant they could be when they beat Marist by 50 in the first game of the season. The freshman learning curve didn’t appear to be as prevalent as it usually is. They meshed with each other quickly, understood the college game, and it showed from the start.

Three weeks later, UK met No. 5 North Carolina at Rupp Arena in a game that would become a lasting highlight of the season, as the Cats won by one point because of freshman Anthony Davis blocking UNC’s John Henson in the final seconds.

After a last-second loss at Indiana on Dec. 10, UK ran off 24 consecutive wins, including a 16-0 sweep of the SEC, the third team to do so in program history. The Cats, led by Davis’ shot blocking inside, were arguably the best defensive team in the country.

“It was all about the length,” sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer said. “That team had so much defensive intensity, too.”

UK lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC Championship game, but some didn’t consider it that much of a detriment.

“We don’t have to worry about a win streak, none of that,” Calipari said after the loss. “Let’s go play this tournament.”

That’s exactly what they did.

After cruising through the first rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the Cats saw themselves facing what some called the biggest sporting event in the history of the state of Kentucky.

UK and Louisville had never faced each other in the Final Four, and the hostility mounted as the game drew closer. The Cats won the regular-season meeting by seven in Louisville, but both teams had since improved.

UK came out hot and had a seven point lead at half, but the Cardinals fought back, getting within two with seven minutes left. The Cats, as they had shown all season, would not break, holding on for an eight-point victory.

In what became a theme in the tournament, UK again got a rematch with a regular-season foe, this time against Kansas, to determine the national champion. The Cats built a 14-point halftime lead, but this time they never let it get close.

Calipari finally had his first championship, and UK had its eighth.

The 2011-12 Cats were a rare team. They combined speed with length and youth with experience. They ran into little real adversity over the course of the season, which speaks to how dominant they truly were.


Top 10 teams countdown: No. 1

Top 10 teams countdown: No. 2

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Top 10 teams countdown: No. 4

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