ATLANTA – For the first time since maybe the North Carolina game on Dec. 3, the Kentucky Wildcats will see a team that matches their athleticism today when they battle the Baylor Bears at 2:27 p.m. in the South Region final, with a berth in the Final Four on the line.
“From what I’ve seen on tape, I’m pretty impressed,’’ Kentucky coach John Calipari said Saturday of the No. 3 seeded, 30-7 Bears. “Not only that they’re talented, but how they play. They play hard. They play to their strengths. They attack.”
Like Kentucky, Baylor is multi-dimensional and balanced, with five players averaging between 10.3 points and 13.5 points per game. Junior point guard Pierre Jackson leads the Bears in scoring at 13.5 ppg., and 6-foot-7 senior forward Quincy Acy is the team’s top rebounder at 7.2 rebounds each time out.
“Jackson is a water bug, and he’s really good,” Calipari said. “Obviously, Acy is what he is. And the other guys are all in that mold that I like, which are long. The longer the better. That’s what they are.
“They’ve got a shooter that knocks it down, kind of like John Jenkins (of Vanderbilt) or (Skylar) McBee (of Tennessee), guys that we’ve all faced,” Calipari added, referring to Baylor sophomore guard Brady Heslip. “If you give him an inch, he gets it all. He had 27 against Colorado, and I think he bounced the ball twice. I’ve never seen anything like that. So, he’s good. They’re good. They’re a very good team.”
“We think they are one of the teams in the country that match up really well with us,” admits UK point guard Marquis Teague, referring to Baylor. “They have a lot of talent and athleticism like us. Their team is like ours.”
Calipari said he expects the Bears to play a lot of zone to try to slow down the Wildcats, but Baylor coach Scott Drew said he doesn’t have any qualms with running up and down the court with Kentucky.
“I think the best thing about our team is we can play fast and we can play slow,” Drew said. “Normally we do push it more than most teams. It’s all about opportunities. We’re not going to come down and take bad shots. At the same time, we have no problem playing fast. We’re pretty athletic, too.”
“They like to get it and go,” Jackson said of the Wildcats. “On defense we’ve got to stop the ball early and stop Marquis Teague. He’s a great point guard. We just have to stop him before he gets it past half court, and we’ve got to know where the ball is.”
Still, Baylor HAS lost seven times, including 90-75 on March 10 to Missouri in the Big 12 Tournament, and at Iowa State, 80-72, on March 3.
Kentucky rolled past Iowa State 87-71 just eight days ago in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats, 35-2, are coming off a 102-90 race-horse win Friday night against Indiana in the regional semifinals, while the Bears eased past 10th-seed Xavier 75-70 earlier that night.
UK’s game with the Hoosiers didn’t end until past midnight Friday night/Saturday morning. It was a draining game, both physically and emotionally, so it’s inevitable that UK fans be concerned about fatigue in today’s final.
“It will be hard,” Calipari admitted. “It’s going to be hard. Baylor has four or five hours sleep on us. That’s what it is.”
Calipari’s players don’t appear concerned, however.
“We’re basketball players,” Teague said with a shrug. “We’ve been doing this pretty much our whole life. We’re not really worried about fatigue.”
“We feel like we have another one of those games in us,” said Kentucky senior forward Darius Miller, referring to the kind of fast-paced affair the Wildcats saw against Indiana on Friday.
“We have fun with that type of game. I don’t remember the last time a game was that fast-paced and up and down for so long as it was yesterday. We like competing like that, and if we have another one like that tomorrow, we feel like we’ll be fine. We’ve put in enough work, and we’re in good enough shape that we can play like that.”
Baylor is, of course, playing up the us against them mentality against a high profile team like Kentucky, but the Wildcats do seem to have the genuine respect of the Bears.
“They are ranked No. 1 in the country for a reason,” Drew said of Kentucky. “They are very good. I think what makes them a little different than most teams is they’re athletic with size. That size plays like guards. They can all handle. They all can pass and shoot. So the difference is they’re just 6-5, 6-7, 6-8, doing it.
“I know people have always characterized our team and talked about our size and length, so I think...we’re excited for the opportunity to play them.”