Final Four Previews In-Depth: Kentucky WildcatsPosted by Walker Carey on April 1st, 2014
As part of our ongoing NCAA Tournament coverage, RTC is unveiling a detailed look at each of the Final Four teams throughout the week. Today: Kentucky.
Kentucky was ranked #1 in the preseason polls and that was with good reason. The Wildcats were bringing in one of the most highly-acclaimed recruiting classes in recent memory and were returning sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, both of whom were also highly-regarded recruits before they arrived in Lexington the year before. Soon after the season began, it became clear that ultimate success was going to be quite the process for John Calipari’s young Wildcats. It would have been easy (and possibly logical) to count out Kentucky after a few confounding late regular season losses had one well-respected national pundit openly questioning the way in which Calipari was handling his squad. But things began to turn as Kentucky moved through play in the SEC Tournament. The Wildcats easily dispatched LSU and Georgia before giving Florida everything it could handle in a one-point loss in the SEC championship game. What’s happened since the Wildcats began the NCAA Tournament? This in-depth Final Four preview, the first installment of our four-part series, should give you a pretty good idea. Kentucky is to be taken seriously as legitimate threat to cut down the nets next Monday evening, and this, in long form, is the explanation why.
Pre-Tournament Capsule. Kentucky showed its youth in its non-conference slate, as the young Wildcats dropped their first three games when pitted against premier competition. In the Champions Classic in Chicago on November 12, Michigan State was able to fend off a late Kentucky run to earn a 78-74 victory. Playing at Cowboys Stadium on December 6, the Wildcats were handed a five-point loss at the hands of a talented Baylor squad. Eight days later, John Calipari’s squad dropped another game, this time in Chapel Hill against an enigmatic squad in North Carolina. Prior to the start of SEC play, Kentucky was able to grab at least one marquee victory when Louisville visited Rupp Arena on December 28 when it appeared like things were taking shape for the talented team. However, when SEC play commenced, the dominance that was expected from the team did not come to fruition. Playing second fiddle to Florida saw Kentucky finish SEC play with a 12-6 mark, and of those 12 victories, only an eight-point January victory over Tennessee was a win over an NCAA Tournament team. When the bracket was released on Selection Sunday, Kentucky was given an eight-seed, and due to its uninspiring résumé, arguments were generally dismissed about the Wildcats being underseeded.
How They Got Here. Kentucky’s path to the Final Four has to be among the more impressive runs in NCAA Tournament history. After scoring a round of 64 win over a solid Kansas State squad, Kentucky picked off three 2013 Final Four teams in succession. In the round of 32, the Wildcats topped previously unbeaten #1 seed Wichita State in thrilling fashion. They were not done there, as they made archival Louisville and offensive savant Michigan squad their next victims in thrilling games in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, respectively. One of the major national topics of discussion all season long was whether Kentucky would ever figure things out and play to its vast potential. With how the Wildcats have performed in close wins over each of these highly-ranked teams, the answer is clear that John Calipari’s team has become the juggernaut many thought they were destined to become.
Final Four History. The Wildcats may be the lowest-seeded Final Four qualifier this year, but they do have the most illustrious history of the four remaining programs. Kentucky is one of college basketball’s blue-bloods. It has been to 15 previous Final Fours and has emerged with the national title an astounding eight times. John Calipari became the head coach in Lexington prior to the 2009-10 season and this will be his third trip to the Final Four with the Wildcats. In 2011, they were bounced in the national semifinals by eventual national champion Connecticut. The next season, they went to New Orleans as the prohibitive favorite and did not disappoint, with Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the rest cutting down the nets.
Season High Point. Kentucky’s most impressive win of the regular season came when defending national champion Louisville visited Lexington on December 28. The three-loss Wildcats were in desperate search of a marquee win and were able to take advantage of that opportunity against the Cardinals. Talented freshmen Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Julius Randle, and James Young combined to score 63 of the team’s 73 points en route to the victory. The Wildcats also impressed defensively that December afternoon, as Louisville was held to just 39.7 percent shooting and Cardinals senior standouts Russ Smith and Luke Hancock finished a combined 10-of-31 from the field. It was just a regular season game, but that victory caused many to realize what Kentucky’s youth movement might be capable of accomplishing.
Season Low Point. The low point of Kentucky’s season came on March 1 when the Wildcats were thoroughly outplayed in a 72-67 loss to a South Carolina team that finished the season at 14-20. In the loss, Kentucky shot a miserable 26.9 percent from the field, and to make matters worse, John Calipari was ejected midway through the second half for repeated outbursts directed at the officials. Calipari also blew off the postgame press conference and did not comment on it until two days later, when he took total blame for his team’s stunning setback. The loss at South Carolina came just two days after a home loss to NIT-bound Arkansas, and this juncture of the season had the Big Blue Nation out of sorts about how the team’s season would ultimately end.
What’s Working. Cohesiveness and unity have improved leaps and bounds over the past few weeks and that monumental improvement is what has Kentucky packing its bags for the Final Four. Following Sunday’s thrilling Elite Eight victory over Michigan, John Calipari stated:
“When they all just settled in and lost themselves in the team, the game became easier. They became better. They had more fun. They became more confident. And all of a sudden this is what you have. But it took us four months.”
No matter how talented a team may be, it will be a long process before that team fully realizes its vast potential when it has so little experience. Sometimes it does not even happen at all (see the 2012-13 Kentucky team). But when things come together, you finally see why there is often so much hype surrounding a talented group of individuals.
What’s Not Working. Willie Cauley-Stein’s ankle. The sophomore big man left the Sweet Sixteen victory over Louisville with an ankle injury and it was so severe that he missed the entire second half against Louisville and the game versus Michigan. John Calipari said on Monday that Cauley-Stein is doubtful for the Final Four. This is a big deal for the Wildcats, as he has been a mainstay on the Kentucky front line since he arrived on campus, and backups Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee are not as reliable. He is also pretty talented, as NBADraft.net currently has him projected as the 22nd pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.
Why Kentucky Will Win It All. John Calipari once said, “If I had a choice between a talented team and an experienced team, I’m taking talent every time.” Calipari lived up to this statement when compiling this season’s Kentucky squad and its high talent level has resulted in a trip to the Final Four. None of the other three teams at the Final Four this weekend possesses a comparable level of individual talent. Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison are two physical guards who have proven capable of making big-time plays. James Young is a dynamic offensive player who has shown a keen ability to make shots from behind the three-point line. Julius Randle has been a double-double machine all year inside the paint and his relentlessness is second to none. Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee had breakout games in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight. Dominique Hawkins is an excellent defender whose defense against Louisville’s guards helped the Wildcats stay in Friday’s Sweet Sixteen game, which ultimately resulted in a comeback victory. Alex Poythress is an elite athlete who can provide spot duty to make a winning impact on the game. If Kentucky does in fact cut down the nets on Monday night, it will be because of its vast talent advantage over the other teams in this field.
Why Kentucky Won’t Win It All. Florida has already defeated Kentucky three times this season, and the Gators own a blueprint of how to beat them, that is for certain. Billy Donovan may not have as much individual talent at his disposal as John Calipari, but his team is veteran-laden and has not lost a game to any team since early December. Florida seniors Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete, and Patric Young want nothing more than to cap off their already incredible collegiate careers with a national title. That desire, coupled with the fact that they are also outstanding and reliable basketball players, will catapult the Gators to their third national title since 2006. If Kentucky is able to get by Wisconsin on Saturday, it will likely face a challenge that its exceptional talent will not be able to conquer.