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

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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.

Giacoletti resigns from Drake

Ray Giacoletti
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Ray Giacoletti’s tenure at Drake has come to an end.

In the midst of a 1-7 start to his fourth season, Giacoletti resigned Tuesday, handing the team over for the season to assistant coach Jeff Rutter.

“I think it’s time for a new direction,” Giacoletti told reporters at a press conference announcing the news.

Giacoletti compiled a 32-69 record with the Bulldogs, whose win totals decreased in each season from 15 in 2013-14 to nine the year after and seven last season. Giacoletti’s teams never won more than six games in Missouri Valley Conference play.

Prior to his six seasons as an assistant at Gonzaga under Mark Few, Giacoletti was the head coach at both Utah and Eastern Washington for three seasons each.

Drake’s start to this season has been nothing short of a disaster with its lone win coming against a Division III school and suffering a loss to Division II Alaska Anchorage.

Rutter joined Giacoletti’s staff in 2013 after serving as both an assistant and director of operations at Iowa State for Greg McDermott and Fred Hoiberg over the course of seven seasons. Prior to that, he was an assistant at Northern Iowa for three seasons. Previous head coaching experience came at Division II Wisconsin-Parkside, where he helmed the program from 1996-2003.

Drake athletic director Sandy Hatfield Clubb would not commit to retaining Rutter beyond the remainder of this season, which continues for Drake on Saturday against Jackson State.

The question for Drake, which has made just one NCAA tournament (2008) since 1971, is who will make the next hire for the program.

Hatfield Clubb is under pressure locally with her two hires – Mark Phelps and Giacoletti – having combined for two winning seasons since Keno Davis left for Providence after Drake’s tournament appearance in 2008. She was also recently named in a civil complaint from an athletic trainer who claims he was wrongly terminated due to a medical disability.

VIDEO: Mike Krzyzewski’s touching tribute to Jim Valvano

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The Jimmy V Classic, which Duke is participating in this season, is an event created to raise money for cancer research in honor of Jim Valvano, the legendary N.C. State head coach that passed away from the disease in 1993.

Mike Krzyzewski and Jimmy V were close – after his famous ‘Don’t give up’ speech, Coach K is one of the men helping Jimmy V off of the stage – and he spoke with Dear World about his memories of Valvano.

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Frank Mason III, Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball stand out

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 03:  Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks is reacts after making a basket during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Allen Fieldhouse on December 3, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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1. Frank Mason III, Kansas: The latest impressive performance from Mason came against Stanford, as he finished with 20 points, five assists and four boards in a 15-point win over the Cardinal. He’s the engine that makes that team go, averaging 19.6 points, 5.4 assists and 4.5 boards while shooting 56.1 percent from the floor and 48.4 percent from three, and he’s still the proud owner of the biggest shot of the season. Is anyone else fired up for when the Jayhawks head to Rupp Arena to take on Kentucky in January?

2. Josh Hart, Villanova: Last Tuesday, we talked about how Hart has improved his three-point shooting and has added the ability to operate in ball-screens to his offensive repertoire this season. Then he went out posted a triple-double in a win over Saint Joseph’s while averaging 9.5 assists in two games. Prior to last week, Hart had never averaged more than 1.9 assists in any season in college.

3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: The value that Ball brings to this UCLA team goes well-beyond the numbers that he’s putting up, and his numbers are already quite impressive. He’s averaging 14.3 points, 5.0 boards, 1.3 blocks and 1.0 steals on the season, but it’s the nation’s-best 9.3 assists that he’s averaging that makes the difference. He, quite simply, makes everyone on the court around him better. It’s a cliché that’s used with point guards too often, but no one fits that mold better than Ball.

We saw it on Saturday against Kentucky. Ball struggled early in that game, committing five turnovers in the first 10 minutes as the Bruins dug themselves a 23-14 hole. When he finally turned it on, UCLA torched Kentucky’s defense, which is one of the best in all of college basketball. His unselfishness has permeated that roster. Watching the Bruins move the ball against a set defense is a thing of beauty. Draft Express posted a terrific breakdown of just what makes Ball’s passing so difficult to deal with last week.

4. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: The Wildcats ended up losing to UCLA on Saturday afternoon, but it was no fault of Fox, who finished with 20 points and nine assists while doing the heavy-lifting in keeping Lonzo Ball more-or-less in check. Fox is a terror in transition, nearly impossible to keep out of the paint, unselfish when he draws extra defenders and an elite on-ball defender. If he can find a way to become a consistently jump-shooter, he’s going to be very, very good.

5. Luke Kennard, Duke: Kennard has been Duke’s best player this season, and that did not change in the last seven days, with the return of Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden. He had 20 points in a win over Michigan State and followed that up with a career-high 35 points as the Blue Devils knocked off Maine. If Tatum turns out to be as good as advertised and Grayson Allen eventually returns to health, think about how scary a Duke back court is when Kennard is the third-best weapon offensively?

6. Markelle Fultz, Washington: Let’s put the numbers that Fultz is averaging this season – 22.7 points, 6.7 boards, 6.6 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.4 blocks – into perspective. No college basketball player since 1993 has averaged 22 points, six boards and six assists in a season before. Only 14 times in that time-frame has a player averaged 20 points, five boards and five assists, and only one of those 14 played at the high-major level – Evan Turner in 2009-10, when he averaged 20.4 points, 9.2 boards and 6.0 assists and won National Player of the Year.

Making those numbers even more impressive is that none of the 14 players on that list have A) averaged more than one block per game or B) come close to shooting 48.4 percent from three. It’s early, yes, and Fultz still hasn’t played any elite competition, but what he’s done this season is remarkable.

Washington, who is just 4-3 on the season, will get their first real test of the year when they square off with Gonzaga in Spokane on Wednesday.

7. Mo Watson, Creighton: For all the love that UCLA’s Lonzo Ball is getting this season, it’s worth noting that Watson is doing something similar for the Bluejays. He’s averaging 12.0 points and 9.0 assists, second nationally to Ball, for a Creighton team that is in the top ten and running one of the nation’s most high-powered offenses. He’s been terrific.

8. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: We saw Berry’s value last week when he struggled against Indiana in Assembly Hall and the Tar Heels played their worst game of the season to date. He’s now dealing with an ankle injury that could keep him out for the next two games. With freshman point guard Seventh Woods stepping into the starting lineup against Davidson on Wednesday, we should really get a feel for just how imporant he is to this team.

9. Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State: Evans was held in check for the most part in Oklahoma State’s loss at Maryland on Saturday and he still managed to finish with 16 points, five boards and five assists.

10. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: Swanigan had a rough outing against Louisville last week. His finished with 14 points and 13 boards, but he also committed six turnovers and was one of the reasons that the Boilermakers had so much trouble on the offensive end of the floor in the first half.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Melo Trimble, Maryland
Malik Monk, Kentucky
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
James Blackmon Jr., Indiana
Marcus Foster, Creighton
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Yante Maten, Georgia
Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s

All in the family: Duke coach to face her own daughter

CHAPEL HILL, NC - FEBRUARY 03:  Coach Joanne P. McCallie of the Duke Blue Devils directs her team duing a win over the North Carolina Tar Heels at Carmichael Arena on February 3, 2013 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Duke won 84-63.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie is trying to treat Thursday’s game against Elon like any other. That might not be so easy, because McCallie’s daughter, Maddie, plays for the Phoenix.

“I’ve always known the game was on the schedule, but it always seemed so far off. Well, now it’s here,” the coach said.

“Elon’s a great school. Elon’s a little mini Duke,” she added. “We pay them money and that helps their program, so it made sense. I felt it was the right thing.”

But the rarity of coaching against her daughter, a reserve guard at Elon, wasn’t lost on McCallie.

“It’s a good story,” she said. “I feel honored for my family. I also have two nieces who play Division I basketball.”

Maddie McCallie is just excited for the chance to play at No. 21 Duke in its famous home building, Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“It’s going to be a great atmosphere and a lot of fun to play in Cameron,” Maddie McCallie said. “It’s a little weird seeing my mom right there on the sideline, but overall it’s another game.”

As much as the McCallies downplayed their mother-daughter matchup, it is definitely unusual. Cal State Bakersfield coach Greg McCall has gone against his daughter, Erica, twice over the last two seasons when his team played Stanford.

Although college players often play for their coaching parents, McCallie was happy her daughter chose Elon after transferring from Miami, Ohio, a few years ago.

“I’m really proud of her and she’s at the right place for her,” McCallie said. “I think it’s unique. One thing it speaks to, as much as I’d like Maddie on my team and she could have been, it’s really important to let your kids do their own thing. It would be fun; I didn’t think it was something that would help her develop. A lot of parents don’t know how to step away, and try to over-coach their kids. The best thing you can do is love them and step away and let other people coach them.”

Elon is only about 45 minutes from Duke, so McCallie has gone to see her daughter play a few times this year. Because the teams are scheduled to face each other, she had Maddie ask Elon coach Charlotte Smith for permission to attend.

Maddie had both her parents in the stands on Sunday. Hours after Duke upset No. 3 South Carolina, they were cheering on Elon against North Carolina.

“They have five seniors this year and are a terrific team,” McCallie said. “We talk often, but mostly not about basketball. It’s mostly about family. She’s really proud of her team. She was a starter last year and comes off the bench now. I’m really proud of her.”

While mother and daughter both know where they will be on Thursday, a big question will be where Joanne McCallie’s husband, John, sits and who he supports.

“I have a feeling that my dad will support me,” Maddie McCallie said, laughing. “Both ways are kind of weird to think about and both ways are kind of exciting. My dad will probably be supporting the Elon team and be sitting behind our bench.”

John McCallie, an economics professor at North Carolina, said it’s going to be a very tough choice.

“I haven’t decided on what to wear or where to sit yet,” he said in a phone interview Monday. “Definitely going to have both colors on.”

As far as which team he’ll be rooting for, that one was easy.

“I’m definitely pulling for a Duke win,” he said. “After all, we just got ranked and would like to keep that. It is going to be exciting, though. I’m really proud of Maddie and what she’s done forging her own path.”

Nicholls State coach DoBee Plaisance knows what the McCallies will be going through. She faced her daughter, Theresa, in 2010 when she was a freshman at LSU. The game was billed as a mother-daughter matchup, and the coach got LSU to take the hour-long trip to Thibodaux, Louisiana.

Six years later, Coach Plaisance still gets emotional talking about it.

“I remember the game like it was yesterday,” she said. “It was for me a very emotional, passionate struggle. There was a struggle from the onset. Scheduling the game, I didn’t want to do it. It was emotional for me for a while. Did I do right for the team? Did I show both teams respect?”

Her daughter had eight points, five rebounds and three assists in the 88-35 victory by LSU. The Nicholls State coach has a framed photo of a postgame hug with her daughter in her office, a constant reminder of a special day.

“The look on my face was a relief that it was over with,” said DoBee Plaisance, a court coach for McCallie at USA Basketball in 2006. “I hope Joanne has the same relief when her game is done.”

Follow Doug on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/dougfeinberg

No. 20 Arizona’s Jackson-Cartwright out up to 2 months

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 25:  Parker Jackson-Cartwright #0 of the Arizona Wildcats drives against the Butler Bulldogs during the championship game of the 2016 Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena on November 25, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Butler won 69-65.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) Arizona point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright will miss about eight weeks with a high-ankle sprain, Wildcats coach Sean Miller said on Monday.

Jackson-Cartwright was injured last Wednesday in No. 20 Arizona’s home win over Texas Southern and did not play in the Wildcats’ loss to No. 8 Gonzaga in Los Angeles on Saturday.

The loss of Jackson leaves Arizona with its top distributor – 5.3 assists per game – and its roster even thinner.

The Wildcats lost forward Ray Smith to a season-ending knee injury during an exhibition game and Allonzo Trier has yet to play this season due to unspecified reasons.