On the night of March 1, Kentucky basketball was doomed.
The Wildcats had just been defeated by an inferior opponent for the second time in as many days, this time on the road against the worst team in the SEC, South Carolina, by a score of 72-67. Head coach John Calipari was ejected from the game, fueling the anti-Cal faction of the nation.
However, the majority of the Big Blue Nation did not declare the big blue sky was crashing to the ground. The loyal, upbeat catalysts of Wildcat nation kept the season in perspective when it was most difficult.
One month can change an entire nation’s perspective.
When that month is March, the change is proliferated. The Wildcats pounced, clawed and roared to victory against up-and-coming Kansas State, previously-undefeated Wichita State, bloodthirsty-rival Louisville and high-octane Michigan en route to yet another Final Four, this time in Dallas.
A short time ago, Kentucky fans likely believed New Circle Road in Lexington, Ky. was the toughest road to navigate through (it is literally a giant circle constructed around the city.) Then came Selection Sunday and the Wildcats received the eighth seed in the “group of death” and the Big Blue Nation realized this road was even more daunting.
How could the selection committee deem the Wildcats an eight seed? This was the question on millions of minds, not all belonging to Kentucky fans. The Big Blue Nation understood the team had underachieved according to the incredibly unrealistic preseason expectations, but an eight seed was simply blasphemous to the all-time winningest program in the history of college basketball.
It turns out the eight seed did not matter. The matchups against three of the Final Four teams from a season ago did not matter. The predisposition of Kentucky as “too young and selfish” did not matter. One of the narratives on the Wildcats during the regular season was “incredible talent, but not enough experience.”
As the losses piled up, (at Kentucky, this means losing more than two games) the you-cannot-win-with-freshmen narrative was easily defended. While the experts busied themselves by repeating this cliché for months, the young Wildcats did something much more prudent.
They gained experience.
Two losses against Arkansas, one each to LSU and South Carolina, three losses to Florida, Coach Cal’s ejection, Willie Cauley-Stein’s blonde hair. All of these events seemed detrimental at the time, but have proven to be crucial in the blossoming of the Wildcats.
Kentucky experienced the thrill of victory over arch-rival Louisville on Dec. 28 and the heartbreak of a one-point defeat against the top team in the nation, Florida, in the SEC Championship game. The highs, lows and all the in-betweens were vital in the expedited maturation process of the Wildcats.
Should America have seen it coming? In a closer examination of the Wildcats’ season, it becomes apparent that the Wildcats fought valiantly in nearly every game. In the ten losses, only two came by more than nine points (both against Florida.) Kentucky had the second-toughest schedule in college basketball. The Wildcats also had the number one recruiting class, good enough to erase last year’s season completely and catapult the team to the preseason number one ranking.
Most people knew the Wildcats were going to be talented, but cohesiveness was certainly a question. Kentucky still ranks 135th in the country in assists. How did the Wildcats abandon the unselfish style of basketball that impeded their ability to succeed for five months in seemingly one week? The answer lies in the weapon Kentucky possesses. A weapon so valuable, other Division I schools would likely sacrifice their football program for it.
Kentucky has a Calipari.
The other trendy narrative regarding the Wildcats this year was written by a vocal minority. The belief became that Calipari was not a coach, just a recruiter incapable of leading a team with six all-Americans all the way to the top. 2012 was a fluke because Calipari was the beneficiary of an unselfish freshman class and hold-over upperclassmen. The cynics believed Calipari could not coach a team to the Sweet 16, let alone the Final Four, by starting five freshmen and playing two sophomores the majority of the time, because the egos of the individual future first-round draft picks would be an impossible factor to overcome.
To the chagrin of these critics, Cal coached better than anyone not named Billy Donovan this season. Calipari can succeed in areas other coaches cannot because of his ability to manage the hype of highly-touted freshmen. These student-athletes become household names before playing a second of collegiate basketball.
Critics believe the superstar players will dictate games because of a larger following. Jaws drop when over-hyped freshmen are followed by 50-100 thousand accounts on Twitter.
As of April 1 (not a joke) Calipari has 1.2 million Twitter followers, the most of any college basketball coach. The next closest coach in terms of followers is Indiana’s Tom Crean, who tops out at 137.5 thousand followers. Calipari can succeed with legendary freshmen because he is even more fabled.
The recruits are five-star, Calipari is a super star.
Bill Self and the Kansas Wiggins were ousted after one victory. Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke Jabaris did not even win one game. Meanwhile, John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats are in the Final Four for the third time in four years and not lost an NCAA Tournament game since 2011 (yes, I know the team did not even make the tournament last year, but this is a happy column!).
Not every coach can succeed with a team led by freshmen, but Calipari has, is and will.
The Wildcats surged past the toughest region in the NCAA Tournament history by providing America with three “I-have-to-stand-up-during-the-last-two-minutes-because-this-is-the-greatest-game-I-have-ever-seen” games in a row.
Prior to the Elite Eight matchup with Michigan, Calipari was probably reminded about how the 1992 Michigan Wolverines were a one-of-a-kind and no team starting five freshmen could reach the Final Four ever again. Calipari did not play five freshmen against Michigan on Sunday.
Cal played seven.
Freshmen Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young, Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson have been the consistent starters since Feb. 1. Sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress were the only real threats off the bench for the majority of the season before Sunday.
The key word in the preceding sentence is “were”. With Cauley-Stein injured, Marcus Lee reminded the nation that the “greatest recruiting class in the history of college basketball” included six All-Americans, not five. When the Wildcats fell behind by ten points, Calipari inserted the seldom-used freshman into the game and Lee immediately ignited the team and the Big Blue Nation with four put-back dunks in the first half.
Kentucky-native and fellow freshman Dominique Hawkins provided quality defense for the Wildcats when Aaron Harrison struggled with foul problems. When Harrison picked up his fourth foul with a little over four minutes remaining, Calipari displayed coaching brilliance.
Conventional “wisdom” suggests to remove the star player with four fouls and over two minutes remaining. However, according to Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim, coaches actually reduce their team’s chances of winning by removing star players just because of foul trouble.
Calipari realized Aaron Harrison had to be in the game with more than four minutes remaining because that is when the team needed Harrison the most. After Michigan shot its freethrow, Aaron Harrison proved Calipari right as he immediately drained a three-pointer and later sank the Wolverines with a fall-away trey in the face of Michigan’s best defender with a little more than two seconds remaining in a tie game.
If the Wildcats were to each choose a faction, a la Divergent, Aaron Harrison is undoubtedly Dauntless. For the second consecutive game, Aaron Harrison drilled a game-winning three point shot. Both Harrison brothers and the rest of the Wildcats have displayed a Richard-Sherman level of confidence.
The Wildcats’ insurgent behavior and Calipari’s immaculate coaching ability are the primary reasons for Kentucky’s miraculous journey to the Final Four, where Kentucky joins the the three other hottest teams in college basketball.
Florida is the most experienced team in the Final Four. Connecticut is the most surprising. Wisconsin is the most unpredictable. Kentucky is the most frightening.
As the Wildcats’ intimidation level continues to soar, so does the draft stock. Kentucky may lose more talented freshmen now than previously anticipated, but that was the deal going into the season and although it took some time, the young Wildcats have proven the preseason hype machines right.
The college basketball criticism clouds drenched the Wildcats and Calipari with pessimism rain all season, but now the clouds have passed and the championship sky is in clear view, and that sky is looking Kentucky blue.