Redemption Road: Kentucky Wildcats Headed Back to Final Four

Danny WaldoContributor IMarch 27, 2011

Kentucky Wildcats return to college basketball's promise land.
Kentucky Wildcats return to college basketball's promise land.Nick Laham/Getty Images

Who says 13 is an unlucky number?

For the first time since 1998, the Kentucky Wildcats are headed back to the Final Four. And with all due respect to the feel-good stories of the Butler Bulldogs and Virginia Commonwealth Rams, these Wildcats are the unlikeliest participants on college basketball's biggest stage.

No other team in the Final Four came into this season with more questions than answers, as the 'Cats had to replace their entire starting five from last season.

The group chosen to replace the lottery picks of last year lacked a dominant inside presence, and coach John Calipari again was left to rely on a freshman to be the general on the floor. Not exactly a recipe for success.

The inexperience of the 'Cats showed early in the year, leaving Coach Calipari to complain frequently that his young crew lacked the toughness to make a deep run in March. Kentucky seemed to find ways to lose the close games, winning only one of their first six conference road games, all of them by seven points or less.

But all that changed with a season ending road victory at Tennessee. Not only did Kentucky win, but they figured out how to win a close game.

They haven't lost since.

Now heading into the final weekend of the season, Kentucky has to be considered the odds on favorite to take home the title.

Their length and athleticism has proven lethal on the defensive end, evidenced by their stifling of Ohio State in their Sweet 16 victory, holding the Buckeyes to an icy 32% from the floor.

They followed that up by holding North Carolina to an abysmal 18% from the 3-point line in their regional final triumph.

Offensively, none of the other four finals participants boast the by-committee mantra Kentucky proclaims. UConn has Kemba Walker, VCU has Joey Rodriguez and James Skeen and Butler has Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard, but Kentucky has Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, Darius Miller, Doron Lamb, Josh Harrellson, and as of late, DeAndre Liggins.

The 'Cats stat line from their Elite Eight victory had all five starters in double figures, with Lamb close behind off the bench, chipping in eight.

Combine Kentucky's offensive and defensive prowess with the fact they seem to play better with a chip on their shoulder, and it's no wonder why many expect the Wildcats to be playing on Monday night, April 4.

In this year's tournament they've already exercised two demons, beating West Virginia, who knocked them out in the regional final last year, and North Carolina, who beat them in Chapel Hill back in December. UConn's next, having beat the 'Cats back in November in the finals of the Maui Invitational.

Coach Calipari will be searching for a bit of redemption himself, as his previous two trips to the Final Four have been vacated by the NCAA.

When all is said and done, count on the 'Cats cutting down the nets.