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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.

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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.

VIDEOS: Rhode Island, Maryland exchange heated words in Cancun

Dan Hurley
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No. 2 Maryland finally found their rhythm on Wednesday night, blowing out a good Rhode Island team, 86-63, in the finals of the Cancun Challenge.

Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon combined for 34 points and eight assists on 13-for-14 shooting and Robert Carter added 15 points, nine boards, three assists and three blocks. Peak Maryland, which is what we saw tonight, is really dangerous.

But Peak Maryland wasn’t the story after the game, as tempers flared in the waning minutes.

It started when Maryland coach Mark Turgeon called a timeout with less than two minutes remaining. Jake Layman had just hit a three to put Maryland up by 24 points and Turgeon wanted to get his walk-ons in the game. Hurley said to the Maryland bench, “We’ll see you again, boy,” according to Inside Maryland Sports, which prompted this reaction from Turgeon:

After the game, the two teams had to be separated in layup lines. According to reports from IMS and from the Baltimore Sun, Hurley was cursing at Maryland players as he was shaking their hands after the game. According Doug Gottlieb, who called the game for CBS Sports Network, Trimble said that the Rhode Island team wanted to “fight us”:

Wayne Selden stars as Kansas wins the title in Maui

Wayne Selden Jr., Jeff Roberson
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The last time we wrote about Wayne Selden in this space, it was my colleague Scott Phillips who questioned, after a poor performance in the Champions Classic, whether or not Selden is capable of bring a primary scorer for a team with NCAA title aspirations.

At the time, it wasn’t an unfair question to ask.

Selden is a former top 15 recruit. He is a guy who was expected to go one-and-done that played poorly in the first big game of his third year on campus. But after three days it Maui, it appears that the old Wayne Selden is gone.

[MORE: Kansas got Cheick Diallo news today]

He capped an MVP performance in the Maui Invitational with 25 points and seven boards on 8-for-11 shooting as the No. 5 Kansas Jayhawks knocked off No. 19 Vanderbilt, 70-63, in the title game. Selden was terrific for the entire weekend, averaging 21.5 points in the two games against Division I competition and shooting 12-for-17 from beyond the arc in the three game tournament.

It was the best that we’ve seen Selden play during his Jayhawk career, and it came in a game the Jayhawks desperately needed it. Vanderbilt is a damn good team. They’re ranked 19th, which may actually be too low, and they seem to clearly be the biggest challenger to Kentucky in the SEC. They jumped out to a double-digit lead on Kansas in the first half as the Jayhawks seemed to be sleep-walking early in the game.

Enter Selden. He drilled three threes in the first half and scored 13 of the 26 Jayhawk points to keep them close. In other words, he played like a star on a night Kansas desperately needed someone to step up and play like a star. Remember: this is a dude that had enough talent and potential in high school to be considered a McDonald’s All-American and a potential lottery pick. The ability is there:

(That move is filthy.)

The question has always been whether or not he is capable of putting it all together, of being the guy that can be relied upon to make the big play in the big moment, to carry a team with title aspirations.

And to be fair, the jury is still out in that regard. Are we just going to ignore those four free throws he clanged down the stretch?

But seeing Selden have this kind of performance in a game like this against a team that is this good is unquestionably a positive for Kansas moving forward.