Leaving Houston last year wasn’t an easy feeling. Just ask Darius Miller.
The Kentucky senior hasn’t forgotten what it felt like following a 56-55 loss to eventual national champion Connecticut in last year’s national semifinals. The narrow setback was hard to swallow, especially considering the Wildcats used a four seed as motivation during a successful march through the NCAA Tournament.
The disappointment quickly turned into determination, which included emotional victories over top-seeded Ohio State and North Carolina in the East Region bracket. The stack of four victories at the time included a close call against Princeton and a payback win over West Virginia, the team that ousted Kentucky in the East region finals the previous season. Although Kentucky had reached the Final Four for the first time since 1998, the ending wasn’t the one Miller expected.
“We were really upset after that game,” he said. “We felt like we played a really good game (and) really fought hard. All of that amount of work that we put in that whole year and we lost like that. (We) didn’t end the season (with) a win (and) it really hurt us.”
If you ask John Calipari about last year’s experience, he admits the team “dropped the ball” from top to bottom.
“We all dropped it, obviously preparation was bad, there was something that was not right,” he said. “I felt bad for them, I wasn’t mad, I was so proud of what they were able to do with that season I can’t even begin to tell you. I kept saying all along, I like my team, I like my team, I know we lost some but this year let me say this, I really like my team.”
Kentucky lost most of the nucleus to last year’s squad, including point guard Brandon Knight, but Terrence Jones and Lamb opted against entering the NBA Draft and decided to take at least one more shot at winning an elusive title. The returnees, along with the arrival of newcomers Anthony Davis,Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kyle Wiltjer and Marquis Teague, clicked with each other and take an impressive 36-2 record into Saturday’s showdown against the University of Louisville at the Superdome in New Orleans, La.
The balance has produced a healthy harmony on and off the court and has Jones smiling heading into the Big Easy.
“It feels great,” Jones said after the Wildcats defeated Baylor 82-70 to win the South¿Region. “Just working hard all year with this group and just us coming together to become a family, and just celebrating getting this far is real good.”
Jones, Lamb and Miller know what it’s like to step on the main stage in the Big Dance and Davis will get his first opportunity this weekend. He’s looking forward to sharing the spotlight with Ohio State, Kansas and Louisville.
“It’s a great feeling to be a part of something special and go to the Final Four,” he said. “It’s everyone’s college dream.”
That dream, however, can end in a nightmare, but sometimes, experience counts. Last year’s ending in the Lone Star state may have been painful at the time, but left the returning players with an empty feeling.
“I think that was kind or motivation for us this year, too,” Miller said. “We know how it feels to lose and we don’t want to feel that way again.”
Lamb wants to finish last year’s unfinished task.
“We just want to win it all this year,” he said.