COLUMN: Cats coulda, woulda, shoulda won it all



After Monday’s national championship, I had to do a double take to make sure I was listening to the correct Lamb during postgame interviews.

“People said we were young,” Connecticut freshman guard Jeremy Lamb said after his team’s 53-41 win over Butler. “People said, you know, we were a one-man team. Kemba (Walker) didn’t have any help, no post players, anything like that.”

Sound familiar?

It might as well have been UK’s freshman guard Doron Lamb — no relation to Jeremy — speaking those words.

All of the Final Four teams had doubters all season; for crying out loud, Virginia Commonwealth’s participation in the Tournament was doubtful until the final minutes of Selection Sunday.

However, of the four surprise national semifinalists, UK was best equipped to win the championship, at least on paper.

Worse yet for the Cats, the team that finally cut down the nets at Reliant Stadium was a poor man’s version of UK (plus a Kemba).

The Huskies were led by junior point guard and likely NBA lottery pick Kemba Walker instead of a trio of veterans, like UK, but the parallels between the teams continued to the very last day of the season: two young teams that managed to win early with talent alone, only to hit a midseason snag before recovering with a phenomenal postseason run by synthesizing the talent into a cohesive unit, not a bunch of moving parts.

UConn relied heavily on contributions from six freshmen this season and UK relied on three freshmen. Both teams had to be patient as the young players adjusted to their learning curve.

Jeremy Lamb recounted how UConn head coach Jim Calhoun got him to play “full speed” and nagged him about “staying low” in his defensive stance all season. The Cats’ Lamb also learned to put in defensive effort and prepare for games over the course of the season after the coaching staff called him out for his lack of effort.

Those non-existent post presences UK and UConn supposedly shared at the beginning of the season both came up big in March. UK senior forward Josh Harrellson was at his best during the NCAA Tournament, while UConn sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi played a critical part in limiting Butler to three 2-point field goals Monday night.

And, most of all, when everybody in the world ignored these teams’ potential to amount to anything, their coaches never lost faith.

“Coach Calhoun was the one person that believed in us when nobody did,” Oriakhi said.

Likewise, UK head coach John Calipari told people all season, despite his team’s struggles, that he “liked” his team.

Almost a week removed from the Cats’ elimination and instead of dealing with the sight of celebratory couch burnings in Lexington, Calipari and his players must cope with quelling their competitive fire with the knowledge that this year was the perfect opportunity for championship banner No. 8.

Calipari said that he wanted to hold the Huskies to less than 60 points. Objective one was completed without issue. But the opportunity to advance to play for a championship became muddled with poor shooting and a sputtering offense.

Trailing at halftime during the title game, Calhoun said that he told his team, “‘We’re just not (being) capable of doing the things, we’re capable of doing.’”

UK was a victim of straying away from what it had been so successful at doing, and was capable of doing, in the month leading up to the Final Four.

Had the games played out according to the script, the Cats could’ve — and probably should’ve — won it all; that speculation is all for naught now.

“We ended up being a good overall team,” said Jeremy Lamb with a piece of the net hanging behind his ear, hugging his championship cap.

Most unexpectedly, UK evolved into a good team this year, too.

More unexpected was that the Cats simply ended their season in the wrong place.