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updated: 3/24/2011 10:31 PM

Kentucky ready for Ohio St.

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  • Freshman forward Jared Sullinger and Ohio State take on Kentucky night in an East semifinal.

      Freshman forward Jared Sullinger and Ohio State take on Kentucky night in an East semifinal.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

NEWARK, N.J. -- Kentucky prides itself on its history, and rightfully so. The Wildcats have done just about everything there is to do in college basketball.

Whether you're talking about their 51 NCAA Tournament appearances, 13 Final Fours or seven national championships, few programs rival the bluebloods from the Bluegrass State.

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One thing they've never done, though, is beat Ohio State when it counts.

"No one told me that," freshman guard Brandon Knight said, upon learning his Wildcats will be trying to end a 0-for-5 NCAA Tournament drought against the top-seeded Buckeyes in the East regional semifinals Friday night.

"You're the first person to tell me that," Knight said. "I mean, there's a lot of things that haven't been done, but some crazy things happen in the tournament. I know Ohio State has a lot of great players, but that stat doesn't really mean that much to me."

That's because the Wildcats revel in their past, they just don't live in it.

Not a single player on their roster was even alive the last time these two teams met in the tournament, when Eddie Sutton's bunch lost in the first round in 1987. Even current coach John Calipari was just a youngster the time before that, when Dave Sorenson's jumper in the final seconds lifted the Buckeyes to an 82-81 victory and into the 1968 Final Four.

The Wildcats also lost to Ohio State in 1945, and again in 1961 and '62. In fact, the only program to beat them more times in the NCAA Tournament is Marquette, which coincidentally plays North Carolina in the other regional semifinal at the Prudential Center.

Talk about a rough path to the Final Four in Houston.

"As we told our guys, every round you in advance in the NCAA Tournament, your opponent gets tougher," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "It is definitely the case here."

The Wildcats have one of the youngest teams in the country, but it's also one of the most talented, with a point guard in Knight who finally is learning to execute Calipari's unique dribble-drive offense. His only basket in the first round against Princeton was the game-winner, but he followed that up with a career-high 30 points against West Virginia.

He gets plenty of help from fellow freshmen Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones, too.

Lamb, one of the nation's best perimeter shooters, set the Kentucky single-game freshman scoring record with 32 points against Winthrop. Jones bettered that with 35 against Auburn.

"They're a great team," Ohio State's David Lighty said. "I mean, they're athletic, they get out and run, they push the pace. They have bigs, they have wings, and they have a guard who can pretty much do it all. If we don't come ready to play, it's going to be a long night for us."

It could just as easily be a long night for the Wildcats.

Although they have youthful exuberance on their side, the veteran Buckeyes counter with sagely wisdom. If they choose to run up and down the floor, Ohio State will slow down into a half-court offense and dump the ball inside to 6-foot-9 freshman Jared Sullinger, who is good for a double-double just about every time he steps on the floor.

Lighty is all that's left from the so-called "Thad Five" -- the recruiting class of Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Daequan Cook and Othello Hunter that is long gone. But his experience, along with that of fellow seniors Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale, is a big reason why Ohio State has been so successful this season.

And a big reason Ohio State is favored to win it all.

"At this point, it's just two teams going at each other," Calipari said. "None of that matters in this stuff, and that's why an inexperienced team like mine, it's hard to predict how they're going to come out and do with the lights like they are."

Marquette vs. North Carolina:

Leslie McDonald remembers walking through the center of campus and down the main drag in Chapel Hill, N.C., last year and getting a sickening, uncomfortable feeling.

People seemed to be staring, wondering what was wrong with the Tar Heels. The team that won the national title in 2009 had become mediocre in less than a year.

The Final Four for North Carolina became a trip to New York for the NIT, and the Tar Heels couldn't even win that.

A year later, North Carolina's back, and its sights are set on another national title.

Standing in the Tar Heels' way next is Marquette, a tough-minded team led by a group of former junior-college standouts that played its way into the NCAA party with a big win in the Big East tournament.

The Tar Heels (28-7) will make their 31st appearance in an NCAA Tournament regional semifinal when they face the Golden Eagles (24-11), the first time a regional has been held in New Jersey's largest city.

"This is a chance to play for the national championship," said North Carolina sophomore forward John Henson on Thursday. "Every day you step on the court from here on out, you're playing for a national title. We just have to take these last steps."

It has been a remarkable turnaround for the Tar Heels, who lost 17 games last season and failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Roy Williams took over as coach in 2003-04.

"It was kind of embarrassing, knowing you're playing on the team and you are not getting the job done," McDonald said of his freshman year. "At the same time, I didn't want to have that feeling again.

"We as a team put the time in this summer. The preseason in the Bahamas and the three freshmen really helped us. We feel pretty good walking on campus now."

Those three freshmen are Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall and Reggie Bullock, and Barnes is special. The forward leads the team in scoring, averaging 15.5 points. Junior forward Tyler Zeller averages 15.2 points and 7.1 rebounds, while Henson averages 11.9 points and 10.1 rebounds.

"They are as fast as anybody in the country in the first 10 seconds of a possession," Marquette's energetic coach Buzz Williams said. "That will cause great problems for us, as it has every other opponent that they have played this year."

A couple of weeks ago, there were many who had doubts the Golden Eagles would even be invited to the NCAA Tournament. They finished the regular season with losses to Cincinnati, one of the 11 Big East teams to make the tournament, and Seton Hall.

The loss to Seton Hall was embarrassing. Marquette knew it was on the bubble heading into the game and got blown out by the sub-.500 Pirates.

Williams spent an hour after that game -- which coincidentally was played in this building -- and talked to his team about the future.

"It was not a kumbaya meeting, not a prayer meeting, just a truthful meeting," he said.

Marquette guard Darius Johnson-Odom, who leads the team with a 16-point average, said one thing was clear after meeting.

"You know that we have to play harder," said Johnson-Odom, one of five JUCO players who see action in the Golden Eagles' rotation. "When we lose games like that, we just have to play harder."

That's exactly what the Golden Eagles have done since the loss. They beat Providence and West Virginia in the Big East tournament, before losing to Louisville.

As an 11th seed in the NCAAs, the Golden Eagles have knocked off Xavier 66-55 and third-seeded Syracuse 66-62 to reach the round of 16 for the 14th time in school history. They also only one of two Big East teams still playing. Connecticut is the other.

"I think tomorrow is definitely going to be a close game down to the wire, one or two possessions," said Marquette forward Jimmy Butler, who is averaging 15.8 points and 6.1 rebounds. "And like I said, the toughest team is going to win."

The last time North Carolina and Marquette met in the NCAA Tournament was on March 28, 1977, in the championship game. Marquette won 67-59 for coach Al McGuire.

McDonald believes this can be North Carolina's year again.

"I know all those Duke fans last year were enjoying it," he said. "We're back this year. We're back on track."

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