Bo Ryan: Kentucky isn't young anymore
MADISON—Kentucky looked nothing like a team with a national championship pedigree on March 1.
The freshman-laden Wildcats, No. 1 in the preseason polls, shot 26.9 percent in a 72-67 loss to a South Carolina team headed for a 13th-place finish in the Southeastern Conference.
John Calipari's players appeared listless that night, and Kentucky's record fell to 11-5 in the SEC and 21-8 overall.
Yet after the loss, unflappable freshman guard Aaron Harrison predicted the Wildcats were on the cusp of greatness.
The No. 8-seeded Wildcats (28-11) are 7-2 in the month since that loss, with both losses coming against Florida, the No. 1 overall seed and another Final Four participant. The Wildcats face No. 2-seeded Wisconsin (30-7) in the second national semifinal at 7:49 p.m. Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and are two victories away from winning another national title.
Florida (36-2) faces No. 7-seeded Connecticut (30-8) at 5:09 p.m. in the first semifinal.
“I said it, so I guess I saw it coming,” Harrison said Sunday after hitting the game-winning 3-pointer in the Wildcats' 75-72 victory over Michigan in the Midwest Regional final. “I wouldn't say that I told you so or anything. But we knew we had a few things to fix.
“And yes, that was a bad loss. But we knew what kind of team we could be.”
Kentucky is young. The Wildcats started five freshmen against Michigan and their top three reserves were two freshmen and a sophomore.
“They're not young anymore,” UW coach Bo Ryan said Monday during the Final Four coaches' teleconference. “They're pretty well established, very talented.
“Physically, they were more mature than most freshmen to begin with. They're primed right now.”
Forward Julius Randle (15.1 points per game, 10.7 rebounds per game) is almost unstoppable near the basket. Guards James Young (14.1 ppg., 34.6 percent 3-point shooter), Aaron Harrison (14.1 ppg., 35.7 percent 3-point shooter) and Andrew Harrison (11.0 ppg., 35.2 percent 3-point shooter) can take advantage of open shots when defenses focus too much on Randle and others on the inside.
With sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein (6.8 ppg., 6.1 rpg.) sidelined because of an ankle injury against Michigan, 7-foot freshman Dakari Johnson and 6-9 freshman Marcus Lee combined for 18 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. According to Calipari, Cauley-Stein is doubtful for Saturday.
“Kentucky obviously is unbelievably talented,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose team is 3-0 against the Wildcats this season. “They continue to get better.
“A great rebounding team. I think the Harrisons have continued to get better shooting the ball from the perimeter. And great size and length at the basket.”
The size and length showed in the victory over Michigan.
Kentucky had 17 offensive rebounds; Michigan had only 10 defensive rebounds. The Wildcats won the overall battle, 35-24.
So how did the Wildcats rebound to reach the Final Four after the ugly loss to South Carolina, which finished 5-13 in the SEC and 14-20 overall?
With the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, Calipari knew the talent was there. The staff had to mold the individuals into a cohesive unit.
“It's a process,” he said. “Every year it's a process. Some guys get it quicker than others. It took these guys a little longer, and it took me a little longer to figure them out.
“So it's not all them. They were trying, loving the grind, learning to work, becoming self-disciplined, counting on one another, being their brother's keeper … losing themselves in the team.
“(But) it's hard when all seven of them scored 28 a game in high school to give up something. … 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.”
What you have is a team that overcame a nine-point deficit to defeat No. 1-seeded Wichita State in the third round, overcame a 13-point deficit to oust No. 4-seeded Louisville in the Sweet 16 and overcame a 10-point deficit against Michigan.
“I hate to say this,” Calipari said, “(but) they played better when they're down, and I don't know why.
“They play fearless. They play aggressive. They get emotion. They bow their neck. And they want to win. They have a will to win.”