NCAA Tournament 2012: Final Four spots on the line Sunday
Baylor Bears vs. Kentucky Wildcats (2:20 p.m.)
ATLANTA (AP) - John Calipari is having a ball coaching Kentucky.
Well, except for movie night.
Calipari has avoided watching other games during the NCAA tournament, and he wants his players to do the same. His message: Focus on us and don't worry about everyone else.
To drive that point home, the top-seeded Wildcats usually head to the movies when they're on the road, so they're not tempted to flip on hoops at the hotel. After arriving in Atlanta, they went to see "21 Jump Street."
Calipari was not impressed.
"The movie was awful," he said. "But it did get us out."
Other than a debatable choice in flicks, Coach Cal's tunnel-vision approach is working just fine. Kentucky is one win from a return trip to the Final Four, facing Baylor (30-7) in the South Regional final on Sunday.
"We're a good basketball team," Calipari said on the eve of the game. "Let's just play basketball. I don't care what else is going on in the tournament. I'm not watching any other games. Why do I care?"
Clearly, he's not one of those poor-mouthing coaches, making an opponent sound like the Miami Heat while pointing out every little weakness of his own team. Calipari is fully aware that he's got at least a half-dozen players on his roster who are likely to wind up in the NBA, a team that could go down as one of the greatest in college basketball history if it wins three more games.
Even The Onion, a mock news service, weighed in with a faux story on Kentucky's seemingly unstoppable march to its eighth national championship. The headline: "Kentucky Going To Stick With Strategy Of Having Far-And-Away Better Athletes At Every Position."
Yuk it up, everyone. Calipari doesn't mind a bit.
He's enjoying the ride, and he wants his players to do the same.
"We're very confident," freshman point guard Marquis Teague said. "We have a lot of talent on this team, so we feel like if we come out and compete at a high level and defend, it will be tough for teams to beat us."
Baylor, the No. 3 seed, is a clear underdog but hardly some overmatched Cinderella.
Bouncing back from one of the most shocking scandals in NCAA history, the neon-clad Bears have pushed their way into the regional finals for the second time in three years. They have a couple of players who are likely first-round picks and certainly believe they have the talent, skill and work ethic to compete with the mighty Wildcats.
"We just want to show the world what we can do," senior forward Quincy Acy said.
None of the players were around in 2003 when stunning revelations nearly brought down the Baylor men's program. It all started when a player was murdered by one of his teammates. Soon after, there were allegations of drug use and illicit payments and a widespread cover-up. When all the dirty laundry was aired, the NCAA came about as close to imposing the death penalty as it could: a lengthy probation and heavy sanctions, which included a shortened season without any non-conference games.
The Bears didn't have another winning record until 2008, but this program has been on the rise ever since. The scandal? That's ancient history.
"I've asked a lot of questions about it," Acy said. "We all know something happened, but we try to block it out of our minds and not let it affect us."
Baylor has been quite the fashion rage during the NCAAs in its specially designed day-glow uniforms, a color officially dubbed "electricity" that actually makes the players look like a bunch of highlighter pens. But, as the lower-seeded team for the first time in the tournament, the NCAA nixed the idea of letting the Bears stay in blinding green against Kentucky's traditional home white attire, ruling there wouldn't be enough contrast (highly debatable).
So, the underdogs will go with new road uniforms: black with neon trim, finished off with black sneakers and neon laces.
"It doesn't really matter to me," Acy said. "As long as it has Baylor across the front, I'm down for it."
Kentucky (35-2) has three straight double-digit wins in the tournament, including a 102-90 shootout with Indiana in the regional semifinals. It was a stunning display against a team that beat the Wildcats back in early December.
Even with freshman star Anthony Davis limited by early foul trouble and scoring just nine points, Kentucky had five players in double figures - led by another freshman, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, with 24 - and iced the victory with a dazzling 35-of-37 performance at the foul line. But Calipari was most impressed by what he saw in the turnover column.
North Carolina Tar Heels vs. Kansas Jayhawks (5:05 p.m.)
ST. LOUIS (AP) - It's been nine years since Roy Williams left Kansas, and he knows the Jayhawks and their fans have gotten over him.
No matter how much time passes, he'll never be able to say the same.
Williams would rather top-seeded North Carolina (32-5) face almost anyone but his "second-favorite" team Sunday, a trip to the Final Four on the line. None of the players who played for him are still at Kansas, no one on the Jayhawks staff has ties to Williams and coach Bill Self is building his own legacy in Lawrence.
For Williams, however, Kansas (31-6) will always be personal.
Williams says he tried to "give everything" to Kansas for 15 years, and will always have fond memories of his time with the Jayhawks.
Meanwhile, for the Jayhawks, Jeff Withey grew up playing volleyball on the beach near his Southern California home, and the Kansas center credits that experience for his shot-blocking prowess.
The suction of the sand when he would go up for a spike helped build the leg muscles to get his 7-foot frame off the floor. He also learned to time his jump, and the quick pace of the game allowed Withey to hone his reflexes.
"I grew up on Mission Beach in San Diego. I played volleyball almost before basketball," Withey said. "When I got to high school I decided to stick with basketball."
It wound up being a good career move.
The junior forward blocked 10 shots - one shy of the NCAA tournament record held by Shaquille O'Neal - in the Jayhawks' 60-57 win over North Carolina State in the Midwest Regional semifinals. Withey's 126 blocks this season eclipsed by one the school record set by Cole Aldrich in 2010.
"I think it was Jeff's first practice with us like, three years ago, maybe. Three or four years ago. And I tried to dunk on him," Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor said. "He blocked the ball and me, too, and I fell down and busted my lip. And I don't think I tried again after that."
Even bruising forward Thomas Robinson, solidly built at 6-foot-8 and a national player of the year candidate, knows better than to go up against Withey in practice.
"What he's doing this year is definitely not unexpected to me," Robinson said. "It might look easy, but dunking on him is not that easy. You might catch him once, but that's about it."
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