Mar 23, 2014, 7:25 PM EDT
ST. LOUIS — Kentucky has been under a national microscope for John Calipari’s entire five-year tenure as head coach of the Wildcats, but this season’s team might have been the most critiqued group of them all.
With seven McDonald’s All-Americans — six of them freshmen — many college basketball analysts considered the 2013-14 version of Kentucky to be the greatest collection of talent the college game had ever seen. The Wildcats had pros backing up pros and the preseason No. 1 team in the country carried so much hype that some people insanely wondered if they could go 40-0.
Growing pains and a number of tough matchups gave Kentucky a 24-10 regular season record, though, as it quickly became apparent that so many ball-dominant players with dominant personalities was having a tough time gelling and playing together.
There were the eye rolls and bad body language and the camera shots of Calipari yelling at players that were staring into the distance. Many wondered if this team would ever live up to its vast potential.
None of that matters for now, however, as the Wildcats knocked off undefeated No. 1 seed Wichita State on Sunday to advance to the Sweet 16 to face Louisville. Kentucky played its best game of the season and there’s a sense of relief among some of the players as they head into next weekend’s Midwest Regional matchup with the rival and defending champion Cardinals.
“It feels like five million pounds off your shoulders when the buzzer went off,” sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein said. “It was just a good feeling. Everyone was yelling and super hype and it was just a good win.”
Freshmen have been the talk of college basketball this season, but as elite freshman like Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins had disappointing early-tournament exits, Kentucky saw its own hyped freshmen take turns carrying the game against Wichita State.
Twin brothers Andrew and Aaron Harrison took turns hitting shots early in the game and forward Julius Randle played his most complete all-around game of the season, as he finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Down the stretch, wing James Young hit two critical shots and grabbed a big defensive rebound in traffic. Dakari Johnson made a key offensive rebound off of a missed free throw that kept an important second-half possession alive that Calipari cited as, “the most important play of the game.”
When Kentucky needed plays, its freshmen took turns making them and after the win over Wichita State they shared a lot of laughs during the postgame press conference. The eye rolls and dropping heads seemed like a thing of the past.
“I know I have great teammates and they have my back out there,” Randle said. “(Our) coaches always say, ‘don’t worry about winning or losing, just go out there and play.'”
Kentucky finally played up to their tremendous capabilities on Sunday and they have the look of a team that could contend for the title. The abundance of talent was always present for the Wildcats, but they’ve come together and gotten through a lot of adversity and they’re finally defending and sharing the ball as a team.
“Early in the season, when we’d get down, we’d get down on ourselves and hang our heads. I don’t think anyone sees that anymore,” senior guard Jarrod Polson said. “We’re just focused. Whether the game is going good or going bad we just stay together and that’s the biggest thing.”
Polson has an interesting perspective. As the elder statesman on Kentucky this year, he’s played with plenty of talented teams that have come through Lexington with high expectations to perform in March. The senior sees this team as coming together at the right time.
“Pretty much every team besides last year, we’ve really come together and it’s been at different times (of the season),” Polson said. “This year, it might have been the latest we’ve ever come together but I think that we really have, especially on the defensive end. We really have each other’s backs and we’re just fighting together and it’s great to see.”
Kentucky might have been criticized by any basketball fan with a pulse at some point during the season, but Calipari has remained patient with this group and it might finally be paying off.
“This team and what people said about this team, all we have done all year is continue to get better,” Calipari said. “We hit some shots, we missed some. Like every team, you hit a hole (where) you don’t play well. But they believed in themselves.”
Kentucky might have aspirations for bigger and better things than a Round of 32 victory over the Shockers, but now its young team can at least sleep a little bit better tonight as they prepare for the rest of the NCAA Tournament.
Earlier this season, Kentucky was seeing red, but now the only red they’ll see this week is the Friday night clash against Louisville in Indianapolis. Kentucky has the potential to still win a title as long as they continue to play together and on Sunday they showed they’re a major threat in the Midwest Regional next weekend.
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