For Kentucky's John Wall, the time is now

Mar 18 2010 - 8:45pm

NEW ORLEANS -- If all goes well for John Wall, the protective sleeve on his right arm, or perhaps his YouTube dance, will become as much his signature as Michael Jordan's tongue or LeBron James' powder toss.

Those are the names with whom Wall is being linked now, and just imagine what it will be like if the freshman can bring Kentucky a national title. The basketball world is laid out before him, there for the taking, his to claim.

What begins Thursday night against East Tennessee State and may not end until April 5 in Indianapolis has a finite life span, like a fruit fly. It also has the infinite possibility of a spring evening, stretching on into the unknown.

There is no next year for John Wall. There is only this year, this game, this night, this moment, this here, this now.

"I'm taking this like this is the final step for us as a team together," Wall, a Raleigh, N.C., native, said Wednesday. "It's our goal, we had a goal to win a national championship, and we're not guaranteeing it to nobody or no fans and saying it's going to be easy."

Next year, he'll be back here in New Orleans to play the Hornets with the NBA team lucky enough to land him. His departure is such a foregone conclusion that Kentucky coach John Calipari joked, in an interview with radio host Dan Patrick, that he had talked with Wall about coming back next year, then had to make clear earlier this week that he was, in fact, joking.

"That's me teasing Dan Patrick, because I knew he was going to bring it up," Calipari said. "We haven't talked about it. What I've told all these guys is, focus on being great college players. Focus on what you can do to help our team win. Focus on how you have to work and what you have to do to be your best right now.

"And that's all we're talking about, that's all we're focused on. We're not talking about anything next year. We've got three weeks to this season left, and that's all we're focused on."

For Wall to accomplish what he set out to accomplish when he spurned N.C. State, Duke, Memphis, Kansas and Baylor (the latter also at this subregional) to join Calipari's just-add-water instant national challenger at Kentucky, anything less than six wins won't be enough.

The template is Derrick Rose, the point guard who as a freshman in 2008 led Calipari and Memphis to the Final Four before moving on to the Chicago Bulls. Rose fell just short, losing to Kansas in the championship game.

That's where the bar is set for Wall, who so far has been as good as, if not better than, expected.

Wall knows this. He understands the tides and rhythms of college basketball as well as anyone, as exemplified by the way he carefully managed his recruitment. Wall is no wide-eyed tourist on the basketball trail; he has navigated his year in college as carefully and as smartly as an experienced professional. According to Calipari, he's the team's hardest worker in the weight room and classroom.

And now, he reaps the rewards: SEC player of the year, potential national player of the year, consensus first-team All-American, SEC tournament MVP -- all that to go with 16.9 points and 6.4 assists per game and the unquestioned position as the likely No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.

"As a freshman, everybody says I have a lot of pressure on me, and I do," Wall said. "But my teammates help me get over it. They help me stay level."

It won't come easy, that much is sure. Despite the gaudy record and the accolades, Kentucky has made a habit of taking care of business at the last possible moment.

Seven of the Wildcats' wins have come by three or fewer points or in overtime, a surprisingly large percentage given the 32-2 record.

Some of that is inexperience, the inability to understand how hard a team has to work through an entire game to create the conditions for victory. Some of that is pure talent, the ability to take over a game at the most important moments to ensure victory.

Typically, that falls to Wall, who sent two games to overtime and won another five single-handedly in the final moments.

"He's a phenomenal athlete, a phenomenal player," Kentucky forward Patrick Patterson said. "He has a tremendous basketball IQ, and he always wants the ball in his hands in crunch-time situations."

Wall has made the critical moments his moments. Now, he must make these critical games his games. He gets only one shot at this. He has to get it right.

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