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April 2, 2011HOUSTON - When Kentucky faces Connecticut on Saturday night in the Final Four, the Wildcats will have the ball in the hands of Brandon Knight, who's become an NCAA Tournament star.
Knight's had his stamp on all of the Cats' victories in the tournament - game-winning shots in two of them, big scoring performances in the other two.
It's part of the evolution of a freshman who has had to adjust from being a prolific, one-man scoring machine in high school to a college point guard who runs a team full of talented players.
Knight scored 3,515 career points for Pinecrest High School in South Florida, the second-most in state history, and helped that school, known for its premier academic status, become a basketball power.
"He does what he has to do to win," Pinecrest coach David Beckerman said in a phone interview. "In high school he was the guy we counted on to give us offense, and he did everything that was needed. Now at Kentucky, he has players around him who can score and he'll do what he can to get them involved. But by the same token, when it's crunch time, Brandon's a winner and Brandon will be there."
Knight has started every game for UK (29-8), averaging 17.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. His 640 total points and 14 20-point games are both UK freshman records.
He's become UK's go-to player in the clutch; his layup in the closing seconds lifted the Cats past Princeton in their first tournament game, and his contested jumper with 5.4 seconds to go beat Ohio State in the regional semifinal.
UK coach John Calipari credited Knight for his work ethic and willingness to change to become a well-rounded college lead guard.
"I told him the other day, I said, I can't tell you how proud I am," the coach said. "I've been really hard on him. Probably for the first time in his career he was really challenged to improve. 'You're not good enough in this area, in that area, this area.' Maybe he never heard that before. If he wasn't doing what I asked him to do, I was pretty tough on him. In no uncertain terms I let him know, 'You're not playing that way here.' Again, he responded."
Knight, a 4.0 student who's been lauded for his intellect, has become more adept at using screens, with or without the ball, and improving his shot selection and knowledge of where and when to pass to teammates.
Calipari mentioned how Knight has developed his ball-handling with his left hand and that he's for the first time being vocal and shouting instructions to teammates. Improving those elements in high school wasn't necessary because he could dominate opponents and beat teams largely by himself.
"I've evolved a lot, just through practice, and just the earlier games in the season were a lot of learning experiences," Knight said.
"I know how to make the right decisions now. I still have a little trouble making the right reads, but it's all part of getting better."
Therion Joseph, Knight's former AAU coach, said Calipari has been smart to use more pick-and-roll sets that take advantage of Knight's jump-shooting ability.
And Joseph said Knight's intelligence and willingness to spend long hours in the gym has helped him grow as a ball distributor and improved his decision-making.
"He had to find out, 'How do I get the ball to Terrence Jones in the right spot, to Doron Lamb in the right spot, to Harrellson in the right spot?'" Joseph said. "... That took him awhile because he never really had to do that in high school; he's the second-leading scorer in Florida high school basketball history. He's used to putting the ball in the bucket, but now they're asking him to run a team. ... He had the skills to do it, but he had to learn."
Joseph notes that through the years, Knight led every one of his AAU clubs to significant tournament championships and pushed Pinecrest to two state titles and a state runner-up finish.
"He's not afraid to put the team on his shoulders," Joseph said.
It's no surprise to his former coaches that Knight has now guided UK to a Final Four,
"It was very apparent when he first came to Kentucky, (Calipari) was molding him into a point guard who would distribute and pass and get everybody involved, and I think he's done that and shown he's a tremendous point guard," Beckerman said. "Now that it's the end of the season and (one loss eliminates a team), he's going to carry his team and do what it takes for his team to win, pass or shoot."
Knight has maintained his desire to be his team's shooter late in games, even after he missed late shots in close losses at Arkansas and Florida this season.
Now he's hit two postseason game-winners, and Calipari said Knight's confidence is rooted in "demonstrated performance."
After making one late-game shot, "you're even more apt to say, 'I'm not afraid to miss it.'" Calipari said. " .... His work ethic is like nothing I've seen. He zeroes in on a weakness and goes after it to try to make it a strength."
Calipari said he is "very hard" on his point guards, and he helped star prospects Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans and John Wall have highly productive one-year college careers.
Knight is a different type of player than those point guards -- a better shooter but not the same elite-level athlete -- but like them Beckerman said he's earned his rightful place in their company.
"I didn't coach those other guys ... but I can tell you that whatever team Brandon's with, whether it's Kentucky now or at the next level, he will be an integral part of that team and make that team better -- like he's made Kentucky better -- and he'll be a terrific player," Beckerman said. "I certainly think he's earned his spot amongst the Kentucky lore."
Knight's former coaches said they have been happy to follow his success and UK's tournament run. Both Beckerman and Joseph said they exchange text message with Knight regularly -- Joseph sends him one after every game -- and they are proud of what he's accomplished at Kentucky.
Beckerman said Knight has built quite a legacy at Pinecrest because of his success athletically and academically. Televisions at the school were on when UK played Princeton in a Thursday afternoon game in the tournament opener, and the coach said he'd be in Houston this weekend if not for his team's annual banquet being on Sunday.
"It's not only personal for me as his coach; it's personal for the entire Pinecrest community," he said. "The whole school and the whole general area is rooting for him, supporting him. It's a sense of pride.
"... He's left his mark on the court and in the classroom, and he's built a constituency that is one of respect."
SATURDAY'S NCAA FINAL FOUR GAMES
**Semifinal No. 1: No. 8 Butler (27-9) vs. No. 11 VCU (28-11), 6:09 p.m. EST
**Semifinal No. 2: No. 4 Kentucky (29-8) vs. No. 3 Connecticut (30-9), 8:49 EST