The game still haunts DeMarcus Cousins a year later.
Whenever the former Kentucky center’s mind wanders to last year’s dismal 73-66 loss to West Virginia in the NCAA tournament’s East regional final, Cousins tosses and turns as images of missed shots and missed opportunities replay in his mind.
“When I think about it I can’t sleep at night because we should have won that game,” said Cousins, now a rookie center for the Sacramento Kings.
Instead, the Wildcats walked off the Carrier Dome floor at Syracuse in stunned silence, as the program’s resurgent season under John Calipari ended with a whimper — and the sound of 28 missed 3-pointers clanging off the rim.
“If we played them again it would be a different story,” Cousins said. “We would’ve beat them and beat them good.”
The pain lingered for weeks.
Even at 18, Cousins understood he was part of something special.
Yet the promise of NBA riches proved to be too tempting. Cousins and four other Wildcats — John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton — opted to leave school early rather than make another run at a national title.
“Yes, I wish I was still there,” Cousins said. “College life was fun.”
Kentucky (29-8) plays in its first Final Four in 13 years on Saturday when it faces UConn (30-9) in Houston. More than a thousand fans showed up at Blue Grass Airport to welcome the team back late Sunday night after knocking off North Carolina in the East Regional final, the same kind of celebration that was supposed to happen last year.
“I wanted to be there for that,” Cousins said.
Instead, his new job means the talented if still maturing Cousins will have to settle for watching Kentucky pursue its first national title since 1998 from afar.
So will Patterson, beloved by one of college basketball’s most passionate fan bases during his three years on campus. The blue-collar forward weathered Billy Gillispie’s tumultuous two-year tenure and blossomed into a more versatile player under Calipari, developing a perimeter game that he knew he needed to become a better player at the next level.
He graduated a year early and patiently weighed his options before deciding to join his four freshmen teammates in the draft.
The mass exodus dampened the program’s sky-high expectations for an encore.
The freshman trio of Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb were all highly coveted when they signed with Kentucky, but even Calipari acknowledged it wasn’t fair to compare them to last year’s group, which the coach described as “once in a lifetime.”
Yet they’ve somehow accomplished something Wall and Co. couldn’t: add a Final Four banner to the rafters at Rupp Arena.
It’s a surprise to some. Not to Patterson.
“You know the freshmen he gets are going to play well, know that they will be stars and shine and they’ll buy into the system, just like John did and Derrick Rose did,” he said. “Every single year that he has had a rookie, they have done exceptionally well. So coming with this class, we believed the same thing. It’s all about stepping up, believing in one another and that’s what they did down the stretch.”
Though not nearly as deep or as athletic as last year’s team, the current crop of Wildcats are better shooters — they made 12 of 22 3-pointers against the Tar Heels — and consider themselves a tighter unit off the floor.
“This team, I think it has more desire,” said junior swingman DeAndre Liggins, one of the few Wildcats who opted to stick around last spring. “Not that many egos involved, just all know our roles this year and played well.”
Whatever it is the Wildcats are doing, it’s infectious.
Wall, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft by the Washington Wizards, struggled with injuries in the fall but is now playing his best basketball of the season, thanks in part to the inspiration he’s drawn from watching his old team get it together.
“I’m feeding off it,” he said. “I’m happy for my Kentucky teammates. They did something we couldn’t do last year. ... Hopefully they can win it all.”
It’s a feeling all five of the departed players likely won’t enjoy this season. Only Patterson plays on a winning team, though the Rockets are considered an afterthought in the loaded Western Conference. Orton is technically on the roster with the Orlando Magic, but he hasn’t suited up all year while dealing with knee problems.
The combined record of the Kings, Wizards, Rockets, Magic and Los Angeles Clippers (which drafted Bledsoe) entering Wednesday is 107-197, a tough reality for players from a 35-3 team.
Then again, they do have one advantage over the Wildcats who will play against UConn on Saturday night: they’re all millionaires.
The joy they played with a year ago has been tempered a bit by the grind of an 82-game NBA regular season. To a man, however, they say they wouldn’t change a thing. They had their shot and missed. It’s part of the game.
“No regrets at all,” Patterson said. “This is a lot different but I definitely think about it all the time how much I miss it, but no regrets.”