Kentucky's tandem is key to the Cats' chances

In a reversal of recent history, the 2004-05 college basketball season has been all about the upperclassmen. The best players on the best teams have been juniors and seniors, to the betterment of a sport that has seen so much of its talent siphoned off by the NBA.

But here in the banquet of March, youth will be served something larger than a child's portion. Some of America's best freshmen are starting to assert themselves.

Marvin Williams averaged 20 points and 11.5 rebounds in two NCAA Tournament games for North Carolina. JamesOn Curry played 35 minutes per game and picked up Joey Graham's scoring slack for Oklahoma State. And at Kentucky, the starting tandem of point guard Rajon Rondo and center Randolph Morris is the biggest reason why the Wildcats are still playing ball.

"They have definitely come of age," coach Tubby Smith said.

No team still dribbling needs its freshmen more than Kentucky. They're the difference between good and great. And in a ferocious second-round game with Cincinnati, in front of a heated crowd at the RCA Dome, they were the difference between victory and defeat.

With the season on the line, Rondo took over at the point and Morris produced in the paint. This was the tasty McDonald's All-America combo meal Big Blue Nation had been salivating over since they signed last spring.

"Man, our freshmen stepped up huge," said grateful senior Chuck Hayes. "Rajon and Randolph played very big. Rondo came into the game ready to play. He was energized, talking the whole time. Randolph was getting every rebound at the end."

Rondo played 38 minutes, scored 16 points (most in two months) and dished out seven assists, driving to the basket with disdain for the Bearcats defense. He made a pair of 3-pointers – first time this year he's made two in a game.

He was a vocal presence in every player huddle – and a vocal presence when Cincinnati's players got mouthy. When Cincy junior point guard Jihad Mohammad started to yap, the freshman gave it right back to him.

"I had to let him know that I wasn't going to back down," Rondo said. "They weren't going to punk us."

But Rondo has been providing that verve for much of the season. Morris' performance was the bigger surprise.

The 6-foot-10, 270-pounder had been among the biggest disappointments in the nation until last Saturday. He had more fouls than rebounds in nine of Kentucky's first 14 SEC games, showed a surprisingly small array of post moves and played with a lack of outward passion.

With the stakes rising, patience in Catland was wearing thin. When Morris made a couple of assignment errors early in the Cats' first-round NCAA game against Eastern Kentucky, Hayes uncharacteristically called him out, yelling and pointing at Morris as the teams went to their benches at the first TV timeout.

Without mentioning names afterward, a frustrated Hayes wondered whether some teammates would ever get the urgent March message: play with peak effort and focus or you're going home.

With Cincinnati's relentless inside tandem of Jason Maxiell and Eric Hicks up next, the choice was simple for Morris: embarrass yourself or assert yourself. He chose the latter and recorded his first college double-double.

"It was a frustrating year for me," Morris acknowledged. "Coming from high school, I basically dominated every night. I hadn't been playing up to my potential, and that's what I had to do against Cincinnati."

Said Rondo of his classmate: "I knew he had that (double-double) in him. It was time for him to step up and do what he did."

Morris will be asked to fulfill that potential again Friday, when Kentucky matches up with 7-footer Andrew Bogut and Utah. Smith doesn't figure to leave Morris on an island defensively against ESPN.com's national Player of the Year, but he probably will be asked to do yeoman's work keeping Bogut off the glass.

Rondo, meanwhile, will be asked to be Rondo. Freshmen point guards are generally not the building blocks of Final Four teams, but Rondo is a special talent – and Kentucky has no choice but to ride him.

It's hard to tell what is more outsized – Rondo's hands or his chutzpah. Just six feet tall, he can palm a ball easily. Just 18 years old, he can dominate a game, too.

"He's good, man," Hayes said. "The kid is really good."

The first thing that endeared Rondo to Smith was his defense. Not only did he smash the school single-season steals record, but he's solid off the ball and in staying between his man and the rim.

Then there's the complete confidence in his handle. Watch Rondo's eyes when he brings the ball up the court. They look right past the defender in his face, as if the very thought of having the rock taken is a joke.

"I feel like I can get to the rim against anybody," he said.

The question was figuring out when to get to the rim and when to run the offense. Smith doesn't go in for much offensive freelancing, so it took a while for his point guard to learn when to pick his spots. Now the two are on the same page.

But as the SEC season went along, the scouting report on Rondo said to lay back in the lane and let him shoot. Prior to the Cincinnati game, Rondo had made just three 3s in his last 16 games.

So what does the kid do, with 40,000 fans watching? He pops two 3s and makes them both. The form isn't pretty, but if they go in, it forces the defense to guard him and opens up the interior.

"If you crowd me, that plays right into my hands," Rondo said. "That's a bad move."

The last piece of the puzzle has been foul shooting. Rondo has gotten better there, too, making 15 of his last 19.

"He knows when he has that ability to take the ball the length of the court and go to the basket," Smith said. "Now that he's making shots, especially free throws, he'll attack the rim with a lot more aggressiveness."

Smith's freshmen advance to Austin with increased confidence, but also increased pressure. If they don't play well, the Wildcats will probably head home short of the Final Four. If they play like they did against Cincinnati, Kentucky could advance to St. Louis to hunt for its eighth national title.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.