Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: UK Has Come to Play

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ncaab-kentucky21-624x390There’s nothing anybody can do to stop the Kentucky Wildcats right now, nothing the haters can do to stop the hottest team that won back state bragging rights. This game mattered to them, a night that the Wildcats not only played for state supremacy. This game mattered to this all-freshman starting five, primarily because Kentucky is playing for a trip to the Final Four.

Without argument, Kentucky’s 74-69 victory against No. 4 Louisville on Friday night was some kind of statement for a program that struggled to find an identity this season. But as often happens in late March, the Wildcats somehow fuels a deep tournament run. They’re primed for a national championship, and with all Kentucky’s potential and growth, the Wildcats are a force to be reckoned with in the Midwest region. It’s quite easy to tell that this Kentucky team isn’t afraid to bring it, even if all five starters are freshmen. And although it’s not over, these Kentucky teenagers have made it known that America has disrespected the nation’s youngest and best talent. I should add, this was the same group of players who ended Wichita State’s perfect season in the best game of the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

No team in March looks more ready for the Final Four than the Wildcats, who have scared everybody they’ve played so far. The Wildcats are better than everybody else. They’re deeper and more talented than everybody else. So that means the Wildcats, after knocking out the Cardinals in the Sweet 16, could legitimately cut down the nets in Arlington, Texas, the site for this year’s Final Four and national title game, with one victory against Michigan in the Midwest Region final on Sunday. They have become, in their hot tournament run, not only the story of March but also the No. 1 school in the nation — as Kentucky showed to the world that it merited consideration for a No. 1 seed. The Wildcats, who are scary good and can perhaps beat anyone, are playing their best basketball all season.

Be afraid, be very afraid.

Because, well, the Wildcats are hungrier and more focused. This Kentucky team is exceptionally well coached, much more mature and armed with the nation’s premier players. There’s not a year, not a year, that John Calipari doesn’t recruit and coach the nation’s top players but heretofore Kentucky was largely a disappointment, dropping nine games in the regular season and even one in the SEC tournament.

This hasn’t been the season everybody expected, considering that the Wildcats locked up the No. 8 seed in the tough Midwest region based on their body of work. But it doesn’t mean for a second that the Wildcats are inferior and horrendous. This is a totally different team all of a sudden, and it appears that the Wildcats are only getting faster, scarier and better as March comes to an end and as the Final Four looms. Such trepidation and fear no longer exist, at least it has not for the last few weeks, and Kentucky’s kids grew up right before our eyes.

This team isn’t nearly playing as awful, neither is the program playing like a No. 8 seed, and this Kentucky team with future first-round NBA draft picks isn’t intimidated at all. It doesn’t matter if the Wildcats were seeded low. It doesn’t matter if people disrespected a nationally ranked program. The handful of losses in the regular season is trivial for a basketball program that usually comes roaring in March. This is how the Calipari experiment works, folks, his one-and-done model that has been a success for Kentucky since he arrived to Lexington, where he works wonders for a school known for its basketball.

This is a subtle way to succeed in the college game, but no other school in the nation, as far as we know, can get it done with one-and-done players — not like the way Calipari recruits the nation’s best talent, then sends them to the NBA and reloads with a new group for next year. This season, even when Kentucky lacked maturity and cohesiveness at one point, it’s not as big of a disappointment in March, and finally the Wildcats are here, the ravenous team people love to hate. Considering the way the season had gone, the Wildcats have been nothing short of amazing in the NCAA tournament and have looked like the team Kentucky fans had envisioned all along.

julius-randle-getty2The comeback against Louisville told us all we needed to know about Kentucky. For everything the Cats have seemingly going for them, their victory against a Louisville team was a performance that’s never to be forgotten. These Kentucky kids, on Friday, dethroned the defending championships and their in-state rivals. These Wildcats — Calipari’s Wildcats — are having more fun in the tourney and quickly came together just in time to leave the detractors in silence and make a run at the national title.

This is the Kentucky team fans were waiting to see after Calipari lured the best-ever recruiting class. It appears as if the Wildcats have emerged late in the season as the Harrison twins and the rest of this talented starting five began to play efficiently and consistently. It appears as if the Cats are resilient and tough, even without an ailing Willie Cauley-Stein, the sophomore forward who left the game early in the first half with an ankle injury. If there’s something to take away from this team, something to remember about this roster, it’s these group of freshmen. They continue to show their maturation, and have not been nearly as formidable as the 2013 Kentucky team that missed the NCAA tournament, losing 12 games and getting knocked out in the NIT opener to Robert Morris. It’s going to be awesome, moving forward — and in this particular game — UK finished on a 15-3 run with about 4 minutes left. When it was over, when the fans rocked the house, the Wildcats earned a bid to the Elite Eight and will continue their improbable run.

With under a minute to play, Kentucky freshman forward Julius Randle, who is a potential No. 1 NBA draft pick, drove the lane and passed to a wide-open Aaron Harrison in the corner. Harrison hit a 3-pointer, with what looked to be an unnerving look on his face, and gave the Wildcats a 70-68 lead with 40 seconds left. Randle, of course, is the centerpiece of Kentucky’s dangerous squad and has played flawlessly in the tournament.

It was a nice performance for the star freshman, particularly when Randle had his way under the basket, finishing the game with 15 points and 12 rebounds. It was a real solid game for the 7-foot freshman Dakari Johnson, which is something Calipari and the Wildcat fans would like to see from him more often, finishing the night with 15 points and six rebounds. Aaron and his twin brother, Andrew played like five-year seniors, making six of their final 13 shots from the field. All positive signs were that the Harrisons were shooting the ball efficiently, getting to the line and draining their shots, and more importantly, not turning the ball over.

Near the end, with less than four minutes, the game turned out to be intense and a nail-biter. It was a whole new ballgame, and these Wildcats made it that way with some unbelievable plays late in the game.

Kentucky is scary. It’s a menacing squad. The Wildcats are to be taken seriously.

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