Looking Back at Kentucky’s Remarkable RunPosted by David Changas on April 11th, 2014
On March 1, Kentucky‘s season hit its lowest point when the Wildcats lost to SEC bottom-feeder South Carolina, 72-67. Talk of a 40-0 season was a distant memory, and an early exit from the NCAA Tournament seemed likely. After that loss, Kentucky went on to lose twice to SEC champion Florida, but it was during the second of those losses – a one-point SEC Tournament Championship Game thriller that the Wildcats had a chance to win – that gave coach John Calipari’s team confidence that all was not lost. Kentucky received a #8 seed from the selection committee, and the path ahead of it would consist of games with the region’s top seed and the first team to enter the NCAA Tournament with an undefeated record in 23 years, Wichita State, as well as a possible rematch with arch-nemesis Louisville. The regional final projected as a game against the team that lost to Louisville in last year’s national championship game, Michigan, or SEC rival Tennessee. The Wildcats were able to beat Kansas State with relative ease in the opening round, and then proceed to win thrillers against the Shockers, Cardinals, and Wolverines to advance to their third Final Four in Calipari’s five years at the helm of the program.
At the outset of the season, Kentucky was the nation’s consensus No. 1 team, and there was some serious talk in the Bluegrass State that the Wildcats could reach 40-0. That dream was dashed with an early-season loss to Michigan State at the Champions Classic, and then Kentucky followed that with pre-conference defeats to Baylor and North Carolina. If those losses didn’t cause significant concern, the Wildcats’ play in the lowly SEC did. They were swept by the Gators and by Arkansas, and narrowly avoided a sweep by LSU. By the time the SEC Tournament arrived, many wondered whether it was too late for the club to figure things out and salvage their season. After dominant wins over LSU and Georgia, the Wildcats appeared headed for another blowout loss in the title game to Florida. They trailed the Gators by 16 early in the second half, but eventually cut the lead to one point with the ball before James Young slipped and lost control, costing the Wildcats a chance to win. While Kentucky wasn’t able to complete the comeback, that game was the impetus for the turnaround. Willie Cauley-Stein called the performance “a big confidence-booster” afterward, and said that the Wildcats were a “new team” coming out of Atlanta. While winning the daunting Midwest region appeared to be a near-impossible task for a team that entered the NCAA Tournament with 10 losses, the 78-76 second-round win over Wichita State in what many considered the best game of the Big Dance served notice that the Kentucky team many had expected had finally arrived.
In each of its last four NCAA Tournament wins, Kentucky faced large first half or early-second half deficits. Each time they were unfazed, looking more like a team that had been together for years than one that started five freshmen. Against Louisville, the defending national champions jumped out to an 18-5 lead and appeared ready to run Kentucky out of Lucas Oil Stadium. In the Final Four win over Wisconsin, the Wildcats got down big early in the first half before cutting the halftime deficit to four. They flipped an early seven-point deficit into an eight-point lead, but then fell behind the Badgers by five late in the game before coming back to win in the final seconds. Even in their championship game loss to UConn, Calipari’s squad recovered from a 15-point deficit to cut the lead to one on several occasions before falling short.
There were several things about Kentucky’s play that helped turn the Wildcats into a postseason juggernaut. Andrew Harrison, the team’s point guard, was a different player, finally using his size and strength to penetrate and create scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. Aaron Harrison, who went 10-of-36 from three-point range in the eight games prior to the SEC Tournament, went 23-of-45 from beyond the arc in his next eight, and, of course, hit threes against Michigan and Wisconsin that will not soon be forgotten by Wildcat fans. Young shot the ball well from the perimeter and got to the basket with regularity. Sophomore Alex Poythress finally played up to his potential off the bench. The emergence of center Dakari Johnson, who was inserted into the starting lineup late in the season, and Marcus Lee, who rarely saw action prior to Cauley-Stein’s injury, helped offset his loss after the sophomore center injured his ankle in the Louisville game and never returned. And Julius Randle, who led the nation with 24 double-doubles and was the most prolific offensive rebounder in the country, was consistently consistent. The Wildcats dominated the glass, especially on the offensive end, where they retrieved a remarkable 41.9 percent of their misses. Many times, getting a ball on the rim was as good as a pass, as Randle, Lee, Johnson, and Poythress routinely put back those misses.
As much as the Wildcats showed marked improvement in these areas, it was their collective maturity that was the difference. The talent was there all year, but something was missing, as they looked like a group of talented players that didn’t know how to mesh together. Their struggles were surprising, given the way Calipari’s 2010 and 2012 teams — also filled with talented freshmen — were able to play well enough to earn No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Granted, those teams had more veteran leadership than this one, but it was still surprising how long it took for this group to gel. At the end of the day, though, what matters in college basketball is what a team does in March, and although it may have been a frustrating first four months for Kentucky, Calipari’s method once again proved to be successful, and by the end of the season, the frustration that accompanied the Wildcats for most of the year was but a distant memory. Even if they came up one game short of the ultimate goal.