Transformation circles around fun, freshmen

UK freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins goes to the basket against Cornell during the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA tournament at the Carrier Dome. Cousins lead the cats in scoring with ??? points to defeat Cornell ??-??. Photo by Britney McIntosh

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – He was only a senior in high school when he first heard he could be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.

“I was shocked,” UK freshman guard John Wall said. “That’s a dream come true for anybody.”

Now that dream seems to becoming more clear with each passing day, and the Cats continue to get closer to their collective dream; raising an eighth championship banner into the rafters of Rupp Arena.

It may be hard to imagine for the Big Blue Nation. One year ago the Cats were sitting at home after being ousted from the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament by Notre Dame. The status of then-head coach Billy Gillispie was in the air, as were the futures of Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson.

Then-Memphis head coach John Calipari was preparing his team for a game against Missouri in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, a game they would end up losing 101-92.

And then the whirlwind year began.

On March 31, 2009, Calipari became 22nd coach in UK history. By the time the season rolled around in October, the Cats consisted of seven returning players and six newcomers. It was a new sight and a new team, indeed. The mentality had transformed as well.

Patterson, who returned for a few reasons including to earn his degree in three years and improve his stock in the NBA Draft, said his sophomore campaign wasn’t filled with a lot of fun on the basketball court.

“We had a bunch of problems on the team and not many people were having fun, just long practices, and just the hard work,” Patterson said. “We weren’t accepting to what we were doing. I think coming in this year, everyone’s accepting to what’s going on, accepting practice, accepting working hard and having fun out there on the court.”

Calipari has said throughout the tournament that he wants his team to have more fun than any other team. The thought being, if the Cats are having fun, they’re going to be even more difficult to beat.

Sophomore guard Darius Miller, another member of last season’s 22-14 team, couldn’t argue.

“That’s what many of us started playing it for, because it’s a fun game and we love to do it,” Miller said. “If you take the fun out of it you’re not really going to be successful. Coach has done a good job of keeping everything fun for us. We just really have fun competing.”

Calipari will still discipline his players though, and will yell at them when needed. Cousins learned of the yelling aspect on the first day of practice.

“I know it was something small and I was like, this is going to be a long year,” Cousins said. “But I’m used to it now, it’s an everyday thing.”

Much of this fun wouldn’t be possible had it not been for a rule change occurring four years ago in the 2006 draft. The rule requires, among other things, a player must be at least one-year removed from his high school’s graduation before declaring for the draft.

Prior to this rule, it’s likely players such as Wall and Cousins would have left after high school and gone directly to the NBA.

Wall said he would have gone to school regardless because he promised his dad before he passed away he would go to college. Looking at his year at UK and the rule, Wall said he believes everybody should go to college for at least one year.

“There are only certain players like LeBron (James) and certain guys like that, that have a chance that have the body that’s ready to play in the NBA. And other guys, I think they need the experience. I’m glad that I came to college and I’m glad that I made the decision to help me become a better person.”

For Cousins, who has recorded a UK freshman-record 20 double-doubles this season, finding the right college was a challenge in itself.

“It’s crazy,” Cousins said. “We were in a situation where I was supposed to be at (the University of Alabama at Birmingham), that was messed up. I went to Memphis, that got messed up. I’m like, ‘what are we gonna do?’ And now we’re here.”

Cousins said he and Wall were going to go to the same school regardless and had been friends since they were 14. With both players now projected to be top-5 picks in this summer’s NBA Draft and the potential for a large shakeup in next season’s roster, Cousins said they are playing this season with a sense of urgency.

“When we first came in Cal asked us what our goals were this year and everybody said the same thing, to win a national championship.”