HOUSTON -- Kentucky has one more edge on Connecticut that has surfaced over the past couple of days: three more upperclassmen that have shepherded freshmen in need of guidance.
Four one-and-done freshmen who fell a game short of the Final Four dominated Kentucky's star-studded team during the previous season. But when coach John Calipari recruited another set of elite newcomers for this season’s team, he knew this class needed help from three upperclassmen who played limited roles a year ago: DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller and Josh Harrellson.
“This was like normal freshmen,’’ Liggins said. “They’re going to make mistakes and [Calipari] told me, Darius and Josh that we got to carry them. They had to look up to us and we can’t depend on them.’’
“He just came out and said we had to be the leaders on this team with another young group coming in, and since we’ve been here before, he wanted us to lead,’’ said Harrellson.
The three Kentucky upperclassmen combined for fewer than 400 points last season, but have scored more than 1,000 points in this campaign.
“We didn’t really contribute a lot last year,’’ Miller said. “We sat back and watched what they did and we got another chance. We’re in the Final Four, one of the biggest stages, so we need to continue to be ready to go.’’
Last season’s Kentucky freshmen didn’t need the help of any upperclassmen, save strong man Patrick Patterson. He was helpful in calming some of the more volatile play from freshmen big men DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton. But guards John Wall and Eric Bledsoe did fine on their own.
“I say it’s a difficult job to have that pressure as a freshman,’’ said Jones. “It’s a lot easier to have older guys like we do who are stepping up right now.’’
That hasn’t gone unnoticed by UConn coach Jim Calhoun.
“[Calipari] has a couple more older players than we do,’’ Calhoun said. “We’re going to start three freshmen [Saturday], so we’re still very young.’’
Calhoun can rely on first-team All-American Kemba Walker and has throughout the course of the season. But the player who may be undervalued is senior Donnell Beverly. Connecticut doesn’t have the depth of experience that the Wildcats have, but Beverly has provided a necessary role.
He and Walker are the only current Huskies that played in the 2009 Final Four, when UConn lost to Michigan State in Detroit. Beverly has played in 107 games for the Huskies, but never started.
“A lot of guys don’t get to go to the Final Four, just being the captain of the team and being a leader telling guys what needs to be done, just being a coach on the floor, that means a lot,’’ said Beverly. “My teammates have confidence in me and that has helped. We’ve got a family environment here. We all want the best for each other.’’