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COLUMN: Team Tweak

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UK rides to Dallas with glitzy stars, old school game

By John Herndon

If you say you foresaw what we have witnessed unfolding on the basketball court the last two weeks, you probably should give serious consideration to a career change into the world of fortune telling.

Or you are lying.

Come on now, did you REALLY see Kentucky in the Final Four after the 72-67 debacle at South Carolina back on March 1.

Actually, I did not see that one as I was celebrating my wife's birthday dinner that night and had cranked up the DVR. I still haven't watched it.

But thanks to Twitter, I took a quick step back in time to see what I was thinking while reading tweets and eating steak.

I tweeted, “At my wife’s birthday dinner. From the looks of Twitter, it looks like I am wasting DVR space.”

And, “Didn't realize it was possible for a college basketball team to shoot below The Mendoza Line.”

(For those poor souls who have no idea about The Mendoza Line, it is a reference to Mario Mendoza, a great-field, no-hit major league shortstop a little over 30 years ago. His batting average always hovered around .200, prompting some players to, ahem, honor him with the term to designate .200.)

At South Carolina, Kentucky shot like guys with bad prescription glasses, hitting 17.2 percent of its shots in the first half – hence, The Mendoza Line – and falling behind by as many as 16 points to a team that finished the year at 14-20.

South Carolina????

That night, at least, about the only consolation for Kentucky fans was that Kansas also lost that day and did not make up any more ground on the Wildcats in the its quest to become college basketball's winningest program.

If you REALLY believed Harrison when he said UK could make “a good story,” consider yourself the Bluest of the Blue Bloods. Nobody else believed.

Except John Calipari.

Love him or hate him, what John Calipari has tweaked a group of hot shot basketball players that made the deer looking into the high-beams appear comparatively coherent into a collection of cold-blooded hoops assassins.

The same team that couldn't have thrown the ball in the ocean from a Myrtle Beach pier eliminated Michigan Sunday by hitting 53.4 percent from the field. A week earlier, UK somehow knocked off Wichita State when it hit 54.1 percent.

The difference?  I wish I knew enough to dissect it.

But what I do know is that Kentucky has been transformed into a team that really has become a good story in the long history of Wildcat excellence.

What I also know is that John Calipari has molded a group of glitzy high school all-stars with shining AAU resumes into a group that wins with a style as old school as short trunks and canvas Chuck Taylors.

The Wildcats pound the boards, beating Wichita by nine, Louisville by eight and Michigan by 11 on the glass.

And Cal has somehow turned his high school All-Americans, a genre that usually equates fundamental defense with a root canal, no novacaine version, into one that held Louisville to one field goal in the last six minutes of Friday's thriller.

Sunday, Michigan went nearly five minutes without a basket as UK turned a 55-53 deficit into a 62-55 lead. Coincidence? Hardly.

Marcus Lee being ready, despite getting sparse playing time of late? Coincidence? Again, hardly.

Friday, a writer friend who was in Lucas Oil Stadium tweeted that Calipari had given Alex Poythress a hug as he came to the sideline for a timeout.

It was a simple gesture saying, “I have confidence in you.”

Soon after, Poythress went on the tear that was probably the impetus behind Kentucky winning.

Coincidence? I think not.

You see, the Wildcats have been winning with old school rebounding, defense and free throwing, but they are doing so in a modern context that does not respond well to being mentally broken of years past.

That's coaching.

And for the last two weeks, at least, John Calipari has been as good as any in the business ever has been.