Kentucky bounces to brink of Final Four

ATLANTA -- What we saw Friday night was highly entertaining theater.

Kentucky and Indiana, two members of an elite collection of iconic college basketball programs, gave us all an enjoyable watch in the Sweet 16.

There was a pro mentality to this affair. It was as if two teams were out there to conduct the business of basketball. There were times it was just pure hoops.

If you wanted scoring, you got it.

Plenty of it.

Kentucky put up 102 points, the most scored against IU in 93 all-time tourney games. Indiana countered with 90 of its own. Before this shootout, no team in the entire tournament had reached 90 points.

In the end, UK moved on to its third consecutive Elite Eight, where it will play Baylor on Sunday. IU is heading home after a tremendously successful and memorable season.

Kentucky had to win this game with Anthony Davis playing limited minutes due to foul trouble. He played 25, yet was still highly effective. The national player of the year to many (he’s won four of the six awards so far) still was very efficient, with 12 rebounds and 3 blocks to go along with his 9 points.

“I got in early foul trouble,’’ said Davis. “By the second half, my teammates told me, 'You're fine. Just come out and play your game. We need you to steal, block shots, rebound and score the ball.'

“So that's what I did in the second half -- don't let the first half get to me and just come out with the same intensity the players came out with in the first half.”

And after the game, there was so much respect on both sides. There was no trash talk or bitterness. Kentucky coach John Calipari and Indiana coach Tom Crean are close friends and are genuinely pleased with each other’s success.

“Well, I'm truly happy for Indiana and Tom Crean,’’ Calipari said. “When he took that job, I told him, 'You are taking one of the top five jobs in our country in basketball. That's it. Indiana's it.'

“And he said, 'Cal, it's going to be hard.' Yeah, it's going to be hard, but it's Indiana. It's Indiana. So you'll get it going. Walking into Kentucky, it's hard, but it's Kentucky. It's North Carolina, it's Duke, it's Kansas. If you have one of those jobs, you have a chance to be a top-five program year in and year out. What he's done there, where it came from, you think about it. They lost 25 games their first year. He had a lot of people griping. Hey, you've got to build the foundation, and he did it.”

Crean returned the compliments: “We did a lot of good things, but they're a very talented team. As I said many times, I think it's obvious, they're extremely well-coached. He is a great coach. It's one thing to have talent; it's a whole other thing to get them to be as good as they are defensively.”

The players competed at a high level. And after the game, both sides gave each proper respect.

“They were knocking down shots, they were being really aggressive and getting to the rim,’’ said Kentucky senior Darius Miller. “We just had trouble guarding them. I don’t think we came out lacking intensity or lacking focus or anything like that. They just did a great job of executing their game plan and coming out ready to play.’’

There was something wholesome about this game, which is perfect considering these two schools are in the heartland of the country and the sport.

Their fan bases are two of the most passionate in the country. And while the Baylor-Xavier game was an undercard with a junior-varsity crowd that included empty seats, that was hardly the case for the nightcap. The fans showed and came to cheer. There were times when the Georgia Dome actually got loud, not easy considering the cavernous nature of this building.

Kentucky under Calipari is now like it was under Rick Pitino in the mid-1990s, where Final Fours are expected. UK went to three in a row from 1996 to 1998, winning two of the three — with Pitino claiming the first title and Tubby Smith the second in the third of three Final Fours. Calipari is 40 minutes away from his second consecutive Final Four in Lexington, third overall. But he has to win at least one national title, the first for the school since 1998, to live up to the expectations that were placed on him when he arrived, let alone compare to that Pitino run.

Indiana under Crean is now officially back. The Hoosiers were left in ruins after the Kelvin Sampson NCAA fiasco when departures had the program starting from scratch. After grinding it out the first three seasons, Crean now has reaped quite a turnaround, one that found the Hoosiers in the Sweet 16.

And they could have gone further. Indiana was down three at the half. The Hoosiers were constantly a few possessions away from pushing Kentucky. But they couldn’t contain the Wildcats' myriad offensive options.

The Cats were the aggressor, getting to the free throw line 37 times and making 35. The 94.6 percent mark was the highest in tourney history for a team with at least 30 attempts. But that was really the only clear advantage for Kentucky.

“They're great drivers, and they're attacking pretty hard throughout the game,’’ said Indiana freshman Cody Zeller. “Late in the game, we had to foul just to try to close the margin a little bit.

“They got in the bonus pretty early, and that really helped them out pretty well. And once they got there, they were knocking them down.”

Indiana had five scorers in double figures, led by Christian Watford’s season-high 27 points.

Kentucky also had five, led by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s 24, which tied a career-high.

For whatever reason, the Hoosiers chose not to guard MKG.

“I just saw that they weren’t playing me at all, saw it and went for it, that’s it,’’ the UK freshman said. “We just took turns. I mean, this was a great team win.’’

There is something special brewing with this Kentucky team.

The Wildcats can be vanilla at times. But that’s OK. They win. And they don’t need to boast or brag.

Now, there is one more game to get Sunday for Kentucky to reach its intended destination. Baylor can certainly win. This might be the one team, save a healthy North Carolina, that mirrors the Wildcats.

“It seems like there's only one team that is not allowed to lose in this tournament, and that's us,’’ Calipari said. “I don't want them to feel that. That's not the case. What I want them to do is go have a ball playing, be aggressive, play to win. If that's not good enough -- like, I'll be honest with you, folks. If you told me the team we're playing today, Indiana, was going to score 90 points and shoot 52 percent from the floor, I was going to have to tell you, 'Wow, it's been a nice season. Hate to end it that way, but it's been a nice season.'

“And we won. We played very aggressive and did stuff down the stretch that we needed to do offensively.”