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April 1, 2012

Coveted NCAA title within reach for Wildcats


NEW ORLEANS - Terrence Jones wanted it.

When the Kentucky forward talked to coach John Calipari last spring about whether he'd jump to the NBA or return for his sophomore season, a national championship ring was at the heart of the discussion.

Jones had helped UK reach the Final Four as a freshman. The Cats had come up short in a national semifinal loss to Connecticut, and Jones - a projected first-round pick - wanted something more.

"We had a great journey, but I just wanted to take it one step further," Jones said Sunday at the Superdome. "I told (Calipari) I wanted to get better and help him win a national championship."

On Monday, Jones, Calipari and the rest of the Wildcats (37-2) will get their shot when they take on Kansas (32-6) in the NCAA championship game.

For Kentucky, it's a title targeted last summer, when the Wildcats first came together as a collection of extraordinarily talented individuals. For the Jayhawks, it's a goal that gradually grew realistic as a rebuilding year turned into something more.

"Throughout this whole season, we've all been talking about winning a championship and bringing number eight back to Kentucky," UK guard Doron Lamb said. "We're finally here. It's exciting to be here, on the big stage, in the last game of the tournament."

*****

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist doesn't need it, but Lamb does.

Kidd-Gilchrist has come up short before. As a high school senior in New Jersey last year, he led his St. Patrick team to the brink of a state championship only to come up short. It was the first loss of St. Pat's season. It was the last game of Kidd-Gilchrist's high school career.

Kidd-Gilchrist has become the heart of this Kentucky team. A relentless defender and rebounder, he's developed a knack for coming up big in the most critical games. The biggest one tips off Monday night, and Kidd-Gilchrist is excited for it.

As close as he is to another title - as badly as he wants it - Kidd-Gilchrist knows that he can do without.

"I love these guys (on the team), and they love me back," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "It's going to be a lot of memories we have together. It's been a fun year for all of us, and it's the end of the road here. Do I need a championship? No. Whatever happens, happens tomorrow."

Lamb has come up short, too, on a bigger stage.

Like Jones, he was on the Kentucky team that lost to Connecticut last year. Lamb had 13 points in that game, but it wasn't enough to overcome the Huskies.

Now Lamb has a second shot. He doesn't want to miss again.

"I need it," Lamb said. "I'm right here, so why not try to win it all?"

This might be his last chance. The sharpshooting Lamb isn't as highly regarded an NBA prospect as some of his teammates, but he considered entering the draft last season, and he's likely at least to explore it again.

Even if he doesn't, he knows this is his last shot at a ring with this roster.

"It's going to be tough to lose these guys on my team," Lamb said. "I had a lot of fun throughout this whole season, wining a lot of close games and winning big games. I'm looking forward to winning this whole thing."

*****

Marquis Teague would feel incomplete without it.

Kentucky's freshman point guard arrived with a rep as a high-flying scorer, but over the course of a season has turned into something more. He's a blender, an engineer.

And though he's the Cats' coach on the floor, he sometimes departs from Calipari's direction. The coach has preached a play-the-next-game approach, but Teague says his team always has seen the big picture. That started in the summer and never really changed.

"We have seven starters on this team who all decided from Day One we were going to play together, be unselfish and try to take this thing as far as we possibly could," Teague said. "We feel like we did a great job of that all year."

But the job's not done. Not the way Teague sees it. The man who drives the UK offense wants to cross the finish line first on Monday.

"Coach Cal tells us whether we win or lose, we had a great year," Teauge said. "But at the end of the day, we want to win a championship."

*****

Darius Miller will stick to the party line about it.

No current Cat has endured the ups and downs that Miller has. The senior played in an NIT under coach Billy Gillispie as a freshman. He's waited patiently while future NBA lottery picks came into and out of the program.

He wants a title to close out his career, Lamb said. But Calipari says the Cats aren't to think that way, and Miller is nothing if not a dutiful soldier.

"Like Coach said, we're just trying to play basketball right now," Miller said. "We're just trying to have fun with it all. That's what we've been taking all tournament. We're looking at it as the next game.

"We're not trying to hype it up too much or anything like that. We're trying to play basketball. We're having fun with everything right now."

Miller is a Kentucky kid. He knows what the game means to the state. He knows what a win would mean for Calipari. Push him on the subject and he'll at least admit excitement.

But his value to a team of young Wildcats is in his steady hand. Even on the eve of his biggest college game, Miller keeps an even keel.

Still, he's been waiting a long time. He's ready.

"We're all blessed, honored to be a part of something like this," Miller said. "We feel like we've all worked extremely hard to get to this point. Right now, we're just enjoying it and having fun with it all. We can't wait to play the last game."

*****

The trophies Anthony Davis has pale in comparison to it.

The 6-foot-10 freshman has more hardware than a Home Depot, having collected Player of the Year trophies here from the Associated Press, the United States Basketball Writers Association, the John Wooden Award and, on Sunday, the Naismith Trophy.

Davis didn't set out to win any of them.

"It's great to win awards and everything, but everyone's dream is to try to win a national championship," Davis said.

For much of the season, Davis was in a two-way race with Kansas' Thomas Robinson for those individual honors. On Monday, they'll compete for the national championship, though it's unlikely they'll guard each other much.

Davis, a shot-blocking sensation whose 180 blocks are three shy of breaking the NCAA freshman record, is more likely to be matched against the Jayhawks' own shot-blocking expert, Jeff Withey.

Still, he and Robinson are competing for a team prize. Davis wants it badly. But he'll have fond memories of this season with or without it.

The Chicago native blossomed into a superstar. His trademark unibrow became a fixture on t-shirts and sunglasses and license plates. He emerged as a virtual lock to be the No. 1 pick in June's NBA Draft.

Even as the breakout star, Davis has viewed himself as one of the guys on this journey. It's almost over.

"Every game, we play like it's our last, and that's why we come out with so much intensity," Davis said. "We know this team's never going to be together again, and we want to cherish every moment."

*****

Calipari is trying not to think about it.

The coach has been here before, facing the same opponent. In 2008, he led Memphis to the NCAA title game, only to come up short in an overtime thriller against Self and Kansas.

His legacy lacks a national title. This may be his best chance yet at grabbing one. And yet, Calipari figures it won't be his last. He insists - whether or not you choose to believe him - that he's largely unconcerned with the no-title monkey that rests on his back.

If he maintains what he calls his "players-first program," if he continues to recruit and develop the best players, then eventually, he figures they'll "drag (the program) where we want to go."

"Whether it's Monday or some other time, I believe it will happen," Calipari said. "Maybe it won't."

Calipari sees his legacy as secure. He insists it's about seeing his players succeed in the NBA and elsewhere. He's adamant that he doesn't need a title for validation.

"I've been blessed," Calipari said. "If it happens, it does. I swear to you. Yeah, you know, it would be nice. But my friends and family are praying (for a title). I'm not. If I keep doing right by the kids, good things will happen for all of us."

*****

Big Blue Nation is hungry for it.

It's been 14 years since the Wildcats last played for a title. Tubby Smith coached them to an NCAA championship on a March night when Kidd-Gilchrist was not yet 5 years old.

Fans rioted in Lexington on Saturday after the Wildcats beat Louisville to advance to Monday's title game. Some celebrated peacefully. A few overturned cars and set fires.

"That shows you how much they love it," Teague said.

All season, Kentucky players say, fans have approached them - at dinner, on campus, at the mall - and delivered different versions of the same message.

Bring home No. 8.

"We just want to go out there and try to win the whole thing for the state of Kentucky," Lamb said.

All season long, the Wildcats have been in pursuit.

On Monday, they can grab it.

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