C-J vault: Elite Eight 1999

While we count down the last few hours to the University of Kentucky’s appearance in the 2010 Elite Eight against West Virginia in Syracuse, N.Y., I’m taking a look back at some Elite Eight eves past in The Courier-Journal archives with both UK and the University of Louisville.

Cats have Final Four feel all over again

By RICK BOZICH, March 21, 1999, Page E-1

ST. LOUIS — In February the University of Kentucky basketball team looked like it couldn’t beat Alabama, to dust off the name of one bottom feeder.

In March UK looks like it could beat Miami – and I’m talking about the Miami Heat not the Miami RedHawks, whom the Wildcats put back on the bus at the Trans World Dome on Friday.

Four weeks ago at Arkansas, Heshimu Evans, a senior, sat and watched during the second half – a time when freshmen are supposed to sit and watch. Three weeks ago at Tennessee, when UK punctuated a 3-4 February with a king-sized question mark, it was Wayne Turner’s turn to watch.

And then it was Scott Padgett’s chance to suggest the Wildcats no longer scared anybody – except UK fans dreaming of another trip to the Final Four.

TODAY the rest of the SEC is sitting. So is Maryland. And Stanford. Do not forget Cincinnati. Only six teams still are dribbling in the NCAA Tournament, and look who is sitting confidently at one end of another dome, sweet dome.

It might be, it could be, it is . . . Kentucky.

It’s March. In March the UK basketball team is Jack Nicklaus on Sunday, Pete Sampras in the fifth set and Muhammad Ali in the 15th round.

With a victory over Michigan State today in the Midwest Region championship game, the Wildcats would become only the fourth program to play in four consecutive Final Fours.

Whatever happened to that team Padgett told me about, the one that no longer scared 10 points out of its opponents?

“I still don’t think we scare any points out of anybody,” Padgett said.

He smiled. That is a major change from the worry lines that creased his brow when he confessed UK no longer grabbed a 10-0 advantage simply by going through the layup lines.

SUDDENLY Kentucky does not need the 10-0 edge. It makes a couple of three-pointers. It steals a couple of passes. It vacuums up a couple of loose balls. It plays eight, nine, 10 functioning parts.

Next thing you know this team has earned its 10-point advantage, and everybody is asking whatever happened to that team that couldn’t make a shot against Alabama.

Let me try to explain: A team that made 31.2 percent of its three-point shots in the regular season is making 45.3 percent in the NCAA Tournament. A team that outrebounded opponents by six per game in the regular season is plus-10 in this tournament.

Add in a little of this and a little of that, and all of a sudden Padgett has some newspaper clippings that look very humorous.

“I read where we were going to be a five seed and get beaten in the second round,” he said.

I’ll let other Kreskins (and annoyed callers to the Big Blue Line) speak for themselves, but I believe I said a No. 4 seed would be waved from the tournament short of the Final Four. I believe I gathered the evidence scribbling down quotations from Padgett.

“The little things that had brought us the championships in the past were things that we overlooked for most of the season,” Padgett said. “Little things like making the extra pass, setting the hard screens and playing hard on every possession.”

IS THERE any possibility a team that has appeared in three consecutive Final Fours simply was bored by the presence of Alabama?

“I know I couldn’t wait for March to get here,” Turner said.

It’s March all right. The third weekend. Most college students put the beach on their calendars. Kentucky is right where it’s supposed to be – roaring into another regional final.

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