Final Four Showdown

Kentucky’s Prince goes 1 on 3 against Pistons’ UConn contingent
The Final Four is set: Tayshaun Prince, Ben Gordon, Rip Hamilton and Charlie Villanueva.

Those four Pistons will be watching intently from their Boston hotel rooms Saturday night when Kentucky and Connecticut hook up in one national semifinal after the Cinderella twins, Butler and Virginia Commonwealth, fight over one available slipper to Monday’s final dance.

One of the UConn contengent might even propose a friendly wager, Prince suspects.

“I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure with Rip and Charlie, they’ll figure something out,” Prince grinned after Monday’s practice. “I don’t know if BG will figure something out, but I know Rip and Charlie will. Those guys, ever since the tournament started, they’ve been talking to all the guys and telling them they better not play Connecticut. I’m pretty sure they’ll come up with something.”

Neither UConn nor Kentucky were considered likely Final Four participants when the NCAA seeded the brackets on March 13. The Huskies went to New York as the No. 9 seed for the Big East tournament and needed to win five games in five days – while teams like Pitt and Notre Dame drew two byes into the tournament quarterfinals – to win the title and elevate themselves to a No. 3 seed for the NCAA tournament.

Kentucky, after struggling to win road games in the SEC all season, won the postseason conference tournament by beating Florida but saw the Gators earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament while the Wildcats were assigned a No. 4 seed and grouped with overall No. 1 seed Ohio State.

But ex-NBA coach John Calipari molded a team built around three McDonald’s All-Americans and little-used returning senior center Josh Harrellson into a contender after losing five No. 1 picks in the 2010 NBA draft, four of them freshmen. The Wildcats only suit up 10 players and usually go no more than three deep into their bench, but they’ve defended well and ridden Harrellson’s physical inside presence and freshman Brandon Knight’s clutch shot-making to the Final Four.

“Good coaching in this tournament,” said Prince, who remains deeply plugged into UK basketball. “We’re a shorthanded team – you understand I said ‘we,’ right? We play seven, eight guys, but the coaching has been good. He’s done a great job with this group. The young guys have been real focused and (Harrellson) has been leading the guys. Those guys are playing well. Chemistry has picked up at the right time. They struggled a bit on the road in SEC league play, but they took care of home court and since they’ve been playing on neutral sites they’ve been playing real well.”

Prince already secured bragging rights with another significant faction among the Pistons – North Carolina alums John Kuester and assistant Pat Sullivan.

Kuester was asked if he would bench Prince in the aftermath of Kentucky’s win over Carolina on Sunday in the East regional final.

“No – Tayshaun has had a great year. He’s doing a wonderful job and he roots for his Kentucky blue extremely hard,” he said. “(Calipari) has done a great job with those young guys. They play hard and they play together. I had a vested interest watching Carolina. I’m very proud of what Carolina did. I thought they really came on strong as the season wound down and the players they have on that team, they could potentially be very good next year, too.”

With the Pistons likely picking in the top 10 – perhaps even the top three pending the results of the May 17 draft lottery – you can bet Joe Dumars’ front-office staff will be monitoring the Final Four and watching for the decisions of several lottery-bound underclassmen who left their stamp on the NCAA tournament.

In addition to Knight, fellow Kentucky freshman Terrence Jones is a potential lottery pick, as is UConn guard Kemba Walker. Carolina has two potential lottery picks – freshman Harrison Barnes and sophomore John Henson – and a third player, junior 7-footer Tyler Zeller, who could push his way into the middle of the first round after an impressive tournament. Sophomore forward Derrick Williams carried Arizona to the Elite Eight with a spectacular game in the Wildcats’ defeat of Duke, led by potential No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving, a freshman point guard.

College and international players who wish to be considered for the draft must confirm their intentions by April 24. While the NBA sets a June 13 deadline for withdrawing from the draft, the NCAA last year instituted its own much earlier deadline for college players who wish to retain amateur status. That date this year is May 8. That gives college players – who cannot miss class time to attend NBA workouts without sacrificing their NCAA standing – a very tight window from when the NBA allows its teams to begin staging workouts to the NCAA deadline for withdrawal. Last year it amounted to about four days spread over two weekends for those players with classes scheduled on weekdays.

NBA teams are reluctant to give players much of a guide as to where they believe they will be drafted because much of that guesswork depends on who stays in the draft. Last year, with very little solid evidence they would be drafted in the first round, players like BYU”s Jimmer Fredette, Morehead State’s Kenneth Faried and Virginia Tech’s Malcolm Delaney all decided to return to school rather than take their chances that they’d be first-round picks.

  • Ben Gordon missed Monday’s practice due to illness. Tracy McGrady, who missed Saturday’s win over Indiana with back soreness, practiced on Monday, as did Chris Wilcox, who sat out Saturday’s second half with left knee tendinitis. Ben Wallace (knee) remains day to day.