AP Photo

For the first time all season, Kentucky lived up to their potential. Can it last?

2 Comments
source:
AP Photo

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.

RELATED: The most anticipated game of the year lived up to the hype

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.”

MOREKansas loses to No. 10 Stanford | Bill Self’s fifth tourney loss to No. 9 seed or lower

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.

Gonzaga’s NCAA tournament chances take a major blow in loss to No. 16 SMU

SMU guard Nic Moore (11) shoots over Gonzaga forward Kyle Wiltjer (33) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)
(AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)
Leave a comment

Nic Moore scored 18 of his 25 points in the second half and added 11 assists as No. 16 SMU knocked off Gonzaga in Moody Coliseum on Saturday night, 69-60.

The Zags got 20 points and 16 boards from Domantas Sabonis, but Kyle Wiltjer scored just four points and shot 2-for-17 from the floor.

It wasn’t pretty.

And it may have been the end of Gonzaga’s NCAA tournament hopes.

Entering Saturday, the Zags had an RPI in the mid-60s, enough to keep them in the bubble conversation but not enough to make them anything more than a team that will be projected to end up on the cut-line.

The issue is a complete lack of quality wins on their résumé. Gonzaga beat UConn in the Bahamas. That’s a borderline top 50 win. They beat Washington, another borderline top 50 win. Beyond that? They swept Pepperdine, beat Tennessee and own a win over Montana. None of those are top 100 wins, and that’s why the SMU game was such a big deal. The Mustangs are a top 25 team. This was a road game. This win was the kind of thing that the Zags could pin at the top of their profile.

But Wiltjer didn’t show up, the Zags had no answer for Moore and they’ll head back to Spokane needing, in all likelihood, to win the WCC’s automatic bid if they want to dance.

POSTERIZED: Cal’s Jaylen Brown has his dunk contest entry

California's Jaylen Brown lays up a shot against Oregon State in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Leave a comment

Cal picked up a big win over Oregon State in Haas Pavilion on Saturday night, and the exclamation point was this emphatic dunk from Jaylen Brown: