Kentucky's precocious freshmen meet Wisconsin's traditional fundamentals

In any other season, what the Wildcats already have accomplished would be enough to win the title.
Apr 3, 2014

 

 

ARLINGTON, Texas _ In any other season, a run by an eighth-seeded team to reach the Final Four with victories over three of last season's NCAA Tournament semifinalists would be the classic Cinderella story. But Kentucky has never worn glass slippers, never been a lovable underdog like a Butler or a VCU.
Kentucky is bluegrass, blueblood, Big Blue, the IBM-like corporate giant of college basketball. The Wildcats began as No. 1 in the preseason polls even though coach John Calipari again was retooling with a new freshman class the way Apple comes out with updated versions of the iPhone.
Now, Kentucky is exactly where it is supposed to be, preparing to join No. 1 Florida, Wisconsin and Connecticut in the Final Four this weekend at AT&T Stadium. While the Wildcats were wildly under-seeded, even with 10 losses, you have to credit Calipari and his players for traveling one of the roughest roads any team ever has gone down to survive the loaded Midwest Regional.
In any other season, what the Wildcats already have accomplished would be enough to win the title. Ninth-seeded Kansas State was no slouch in the second-round game before Kentucky knocked off 35-0 Wichita State, defending national champion Louisville and last season's runner-up Michigan.
"In the end, we got the plane down, barely," Calipari said. "We almost ran out of runway. This team was built up to be torn down. I always wonder if it's the opinion or the hope of how people feel about this team.
"But they withstood it. They were under immense fire. They never wavered. They believed in the leadership ... So that is a great story of 'How in the world did you guys overcome that?' Well, it made us stronger. It made us tougher. It made us harder."
It didn't make them national champions yet. There still are two more hurdles. First, the Wildcats must pit their collection of probable NBA first-rounders _ freshmen Julius Randle, James Young and the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew _ against the fundamentals and defensive toughness of coach Bo Ryan's veteran Wisconsin team.
If the Wildcats make it to Monday night's title game, they would face either seventh-seeded UConn or a fourth matchup with SEC rival Florida, a team they are 0-3 against this season. Kentucky's task is complicated by the loss of 7-foot shot-blocker Willie Cauley-Stein to an ankle injury Calipari said is likely to keep him out of the Final Four.
Outside of Kentucky, many view Calipari's one-and-done wonders as the epitome of the crass commercialism associated with big-time college athletics. They arrive with the McDonald's logo on their high school All-American credentials; they step into Calipari's NBA pipeline as if they're going through a car wash, and they come out the other end all buffed up for the draft.
At least, that's how it worked two years ago when freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist led them to a national title. Last season's recruiting class started out No. 2 in the preseason and wound up first-round losers in the NIT to Robert Morris.
So it's not as easy as it looks, and 10 losses this season are proof of that. "Part of the process is failing fast, sometimes failing often," Calipari said. "The final step to all this is you surrender to each other, lose yourself in the team and understand less is more. But that really takes time when you're playing seven freshmen in your top eight."
Calipari had to define roles and convince players to worry more about working for team success than about compiling stats to boost their draft profile.
"I've had to coach body language, unselfish play," Calipari said. "I'm not coaching any of that now. I'm coaching basketball."

 

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