It wasn’t too long ago that John Calipari’s young freshmen lost back-to-back games late in the season. The Wildcats had fallen out of the Top 25 for the first time all season and the No. 1-ranked team in the preseason polls was an afterthought as the Madness began. It wasn’t until losing the SEC Championship Game did the ‘Cats turn it around.
Kentucky, who had lost to Florida twice already during the regular season, trailed by 16 points and had the decision to pack it in. They didn’t. For the first time all season that day, we saw Kentucky grow up and fight back against adversity. The Wildcats dwindled away at the Gators lead and had a chance to win the game on the final possession. Unfortunately the Wildcats failed to do so, but the lesson they learned that day has driven them all the way to the Final Four, where they have earned a chance to be crowned national champions.
The Wildcats have had an up and down season, struggling at the beginning of the year against top teams. A loss to Michigan State, as well as losses to Baylor and North Carolina proved the young stars were not ready to compete with the big boys yet. After a big win over Louisville before starting conference play, Kentucky looked as though it may have found its groove. However, a couple of tough conference road games at Arkansas and LSU made it evident Andrew and Aaron Harrison were not ready to play through adversity on the road. The twin’s body language on the floor when the team began to struggle was detrimental to the confidence of the rest of the team. They made bad decision with the ball and began forcing shots. Finally in the SEC Championship Game, the Harrison twins showed their maturity and poise and fought back when their backs were against the wall.
Kentucky has taken the momentum they gained in the final minutes of the SEC Championship Game and have ridden that wave all the way through the tournament. When the bracket was released, everyone was talking about how Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Duke would battle it out to represent the Midwest region in North Texas. However, no one thought that Kentucky would be the team to upend undefeated Wichita State, dethrone the defending champion Louisville Cardinals and then hold off the team that Louisville beat last year in the championship, Michigan. But the Wildcats pulled off the unthinkable and are now only one game away from being the first team to win a national championship with five starting freshmen.
In the game against Wichita State, Andrew Harrison was phenomenal, running the offense, scoring 20 points and hitting seven of nine free throws with a bad elbow. The young Wildcats team hit some big pressure free throws down the stretch to knock off the Shockers and end their hopes for an undefeated season. Against Louisville, Andrew Harrison had 14 points, seven assists and five rebounds. Andrews’s brother Aaron Harrison has scored in double-digits in every tournament game and also hit the go-ahead three-pointer with 39 seconds left against Louisville. He then hit four big three-pointers to close out Michigan in the Elite Eight after not scoring in the first 30 minutes of the game. A week later, he stunned the Badgers with another three-pointer with 5.7 seconds left to advance the Wildcats to the title game.
Julius Randle will be named the Most Outstanding Player in the tournament if the Wildcats prevail tonight, tallying a double-double in every game except one. James Young has been a steady offensive player for Kentucky all season and had 17 points in their win over Wisconsin.
Kentucky will need to continue to hit their pressure free throws down the stretch to be crowned national champions. They shot 73 percent from the charity stripe in their third-round win compared to Wichita State’s 67 percent. Against Louisville, the Cardinals missed 10 of their 23 free throws while Kentucky was 22-of-27 at the line, and made five of its last six to close out the champs.
However, the x-factor for the Wildcats to win their second national title in three seasons is the glass. Kentucky is the No. 1-ranked offensive rebounding team in the country and sometimes their best possession is throwing it up at the rim and getting a second chance putback. The loss of Willie Cauley-Stein is hurtful, but Marcus Lee came off the bench against Michigan and dominated the glass, scoring 12 points and grabbing eight rebounds. Lee had only nine points since January before breaking out in the Elite Eight.
In Kentucky’s upset over Wichita State, they out-rebounded the Shockers 32-23. Against Michigan in the Elite Eight, the Wildcats owned the boards, grabbing 35 rebounds, 17 of them offensive boards, compared to 24 rebounds by the Wolverines. In the semifinal matchup against Wisconsin, Kentucky again owned the glass, out-rebounding the Badgers and grabbing 11 offensive rebounds compared to Wisconsin’s six.
The biggest difference in this Kentucky team compared to the team that took the floor in the regular season is their execution in “winning time.” In the final five minutes of basketball games within five points, Kentucky is plus-11 in the tournament, shooting 66.7 percent from the field and 78.9 percent from the line. In the regular season, they were minus-15 in those winning moments and shot 30.8 percent from the field and 57.1 percent from the free throw line. Against Louisville and Wichita State, Kentucky outscored the two by 12 points combined in the final five minutes. In the regular season, they were outscored by 13 points in similar situations. More importantly in those moments, Kentucky has yet to commit a single turnover in the last five minutes of a tournament game. Actually against Wisconsin, John Calipari’s young team didn’t commit one turnover in the final 30 minutes of the game!
The Wildcats are the team of destiny. They have knocked off every big-name program that has stepped into their path and have shown the big stage isn’t too big for their young stars. Tonight they must bother Shabazz Napier with the size of the Harrison twins and not allow Napier to get into the lane and finish. Kentucky is bigger and more physical down low and should be able to win the battle in the paint on both ends of the floor. Kentucky’s length can give DeAndre Daniels some trouble and Daniels will be forced to help out in the paint against Kentucky’s size.
The Wildcats must keep UConn off the line, especially Napier, who is shooting 87 percent from the charity stripe. Kentucky has the size with Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress to be unstoppable down low, and Marcus Lee has been a great energy player off the bench to spark the Wildcats on offense. James Young can fill it up and the Harrison twins have taken their games to the next level. The Wildcats have all the ingredients to go from preseason No. 1 to national champions and cap off their Cinderella story tonight in North Texas.
Who do you think is going to win tonight?
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