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Kentucky Wildcats jell into strong team entering NCAA Tournament

Terrence Jones, left, the SEC freshman of the year, is joined on the conference all-freshman team by Doron Lamb. As they’ve meshed with Kentucky’s veteran players, the team has taken off and has won eight of its past nine games heading into the NCAAs.

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Terrence Jones, left, the SEC freshman of the year, is joined on the conference all-freshman team by Doron Lamb. As they’ve meshed with Kentucky’s veteran players, the team has taken off and has won eight of its past nine games heading into the NCAAs.

At the beginning of the season, they were a collection of prized recruits bonded only by high expectations, yet all special in their own way.

They started strong, but eventually Kentucky's heralded young basketball players ran into struggles and disappointment — particularly by the program's storied standards.

But when Kentucky celebrated its 28th SEC tournament title Sunday afternoon, the feeling among Wildcats fans — and more important, the players — is that Kentucky is back at just the right time. And that, they believe, could mean another deep NCAA Tournament run.

"I feel a lot of guys are stepping up, really taking a hold of their roles and just really buying into the team effort as far as defense and rebounding and stuff like that — the things teams need to do," freshman guard Brandon Knight said. "If you've been together for a while already, it kind of happens (jelling). But with a new team, a lot of new guys, it kind of takes a while to get that jelling."

The individuals have become one unit. And it's an impressive one. The Wildcats boast the SEC freshman of the year in Terrence Jones, Knight and Doron Lamb were named to the SEC all-freshman team and Jones and Knight were first-team All-SEC selections.

Knight, the highly recruited phenom from Fort Lauderdale, is the only player in the SEC to rank in the top five in scoring (third) and assists (second). Four of the five starters are averaging double figures, and Kentucky has won eight of its past nine games.

"We feel like we have a lot of weapons on this team, really," junior guard Darius Miller said. "So if one or two guys aren't playing too well at a time, we all feel like we can step up to score the ball. So that's how we look at our team anyway.

"We don't know how anybody else looks at it, but we feel we have a lot of offensive weapons where if somebody's not playing too well it doesn't bother us."

When John Calipari lost four freshmen at the end of last season, the consensus was that the Wildcats likely would quickly rebound. With another stellar recruiting class, Kentucky wouldn't rebuild, just reload.

But when Kentucky lost five of 10 games midway through the season, Calipari had to find a way to mesh his newcomers and veterans in a more productive way. It has worked.

"I mean, everybody on this team has gotten better," Calipari said. "Darius Miller's not even the same guy. … I'm happy with Brandon, where he was at the beginning of the year. And it's just like Derrick Rose and Tyreke (Evans), and John Wall — they all over the year got better. So has Brandon."

As the Wildcats begin play in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday in Tampa, their biggest concern might be depth. Calipari acknowledged last week that he would "probably be pressing more and doing some different things" if he had more players and that it has affected the way he has called games. But he thinks Kentucky's stellar defense helps compensate.

"We're guarding like my old teams," he said. "We're just guarding you on that NBA 3-point line, making that hard."

Most of all, they are playing as one unit.

"We are trying to win together," Jones said. "Everybody is trusting all five players on the floor. A lot of times it used to be just three guys trusting three guys, or maybe just one guy who was (the missing) link. But now guys have really got it going.

"Everybody is really focused and expecting everybody's game. Everybody is going as hard as they can."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

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Kentucky Wildcats jell into strong team entering NCAA Tournament 03/14/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 14, 2011 10:14pm]
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