COLUMN: Experience, youth leads UK back to Final Four

Twelve years. It felt like a lifetime for UK fans enduring their longest Final Four drought in school history. But after four failed attempts to advance from the Elite Eight, John Calipari led his team back where its fans feel they belong.

The feat means Calipari now joins former UK head coach Rick Pitino as the only two coaches to lead three different teams to the Final Four. Now Calipari just hopes he can match Pitino in another department — a National Championship.

Some are surprised by the fact this is the team that has led UK back to the Final Four, but if fans take a step back, it may offer some perspective. This team is a return to the more traditional type of basketball team. There are no superstars, no guaranteed one-and-dones. Instead, there is a team that learned to play together over the course of the year, a team in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

“It took longer than I thought (to come together). I was just waiting for everyone to click and get on the same page,” freshman Terrence Jones said.

Fellow freshman Brandon Knight has the ability to be the star of the team, but even when he managed to only post two points against Princeton, his teammates found a way to fill the void.

Jones has had a relatively quiet tournament, partly because he’s learned to be less selfish and step up his defensive game, losing him a little bit of the media attention he had garnered in the first half of the season.

The most notable UK players to step up to the task for the unlikely run: veterans DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson. Each was buried behind the all-star class Calipari brought in last season, and many believed this would be a rebuilding year until Calipari’s much anticipated 2011-2012 recruiting class came to Lexington.

Instead, they both stepped up to prove they could be the ones to get this team back where it belongs. Harrellson helped neutralize Player of the Year candidate Jared Sullinger as the Cats knocked off top-seeded Ohio State and Liggins hit the three that put the nail in the coffin against the Tar Heels.

“It takes more than talent. Discipline, hard work, all the extra stuff,” Liggins said.

UK had never beaten either team in NCAA Tournament play and snapped a four-game Elite Eight losing streak dating back to 1999.

Every team Kentucky has lost to this season, they have beaten if given an opportunity to play them for a second time. UK fell to UConn in the Maui Invitational earlier this year.

When Billy Gillispie failed to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 17 years, Kentucky fans couldn’t have felt further from a title. Two years and a John Calipari hiring later, they’re knocking on the door of an eighth championship.

“We got Kentucky back,” Harrellson said.