Face it. If these Kentucky players wore the name of just about any other school across their chests, they would be national darlings right now.
The No. 8 seed that faced nonstop criticism all year long. The preseason No. 1 team that faced expectations of going 40-0 in the preseason only to fall out of the AP Top 25 by the start of the SEC Tournament. The once-heralded freshmen that were told they were not good enough, that they were selfish, that they were a disappointment.
Even when this group took No. 1 Florida to the final possession in the SEC championship game, the Twittersphere was still filled with doubts because the Wildcats lost to South Carolina two weeks prior.
Now on the biggest stage, Kentucky has finally reached its potential, playing like a team that actually could compete in 40 games and win all of them. Many doubters have turned to admirers, but they still refuse to call the Wildcats underdogs. No. 11 seed Dayton remains this year’s Cinderella story, and it seems like nothing the Wildcats do can get them invited to the ball.
This should be the feel-good story of the NCAA Tournament, but for some reason it’s not. Instead of shying away from criticism, this Kentucky team set out to prove the critics were wrong.
And, boy, have they.
The group that will play Big Ten champion Michigan on Sunday for a spot in the Final Four is not the same group of “selfish” freshmen that was on the court just a few weeks ago. They may be in only their second term as college students, but they are far more experienced than freshmen when it comes to on-court experience. Louisville senior Russ Smith called them sophomores before the Cardinals’ Sweet 16 game with the Wildcats.
“They’re maturing right before our eyes,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said after the team’s Sweet 16 win Friday. “They’re playing for each other. They have finally surrendered and lost themselves in the team. It’s just taken us a long time.”
Kentucky’s run appeared at it’s end in the final minutes of Friday’s game against Louisville. The Wildcats trailed 66-59 inside of five minutes to play. Then Kentucky forwards Alex Poythress and Julius Randle completed an 8-0 run on their own to grab a 67-66 lead with 1:26 left. Smith put Louisville back on top on the Cardinals’ next possession, but then Kentucky freshman Aaron Harrison his third 3-pointer of the game, and this one proved to be the game-winner.
“We just never gave up,” Poythress said. “That’s something about this team that we have learned lately. When it gets thick, we just don’t give up. We have a lot of fighters on this team.”
Calipari took the blame for Kentucky’s regular-season struggles, saying he failed to define roles for the players. But he also takes pride in sticking with this group.
“I never give up on a team or a player, ever,” Calipari said. “And this team, I kept telling you guys [media], it was the fun thing to do to attack these kids individually. ‘They’re no good, they can’t play, they’re this, they’re that.’ It’s one thing after another. They took it on and they pushed it aside and they kept trying to get better. They kept believing in each other.”
Along the road to the Elite Eight, Kentucky has had the moments every Cinderella group seems to have. Kentucky needed its best game of the season and phenomenal 3-point shooting to knock off undefeated Wichita State. Then freshman guard Dominique Hawkins, who averaged just 0.8 points and 8.5 minutes per game, gave the Wildcats a valuable 15 minutes off the bench as they defeated in-state rival Louisville. And in those 15 minutes, he shut down Smith, Louisville’s leading scorer.
And even though Hawkins did not even attempt a shot, the team hugged and cheered him after the game like he had just hit the game-winner. So how could you not like it?
Oh, right. Because his jersey says “Kentucky” across the chest.