The roller coaster of all roller coasters has seen the Kentucky Wildcats go from the preseason No. 1 team in the rankings to losing six games in the weak SEC, resulting in the plummet out of the rankings after multiple losses to Arkansas and a complete beat-down at the hands of South Carolina. Now, Kentucky has steamrolled a third consecutive powerhouse to somehow wind up in the Final Four after beating Michigan 75-72. Not only is Kentucky on a roll and restating why they received so much preseason hype, but the Wildcats have rounded into form and now must be considered the favorites to bring home another national championship.
Kentucky has been battle-tested and while every team in the tourney is usually playing its best basketball around this time, no team has gone through as daunting of a path as Kentucky. On Selection Sunday, analysts crowed about the quality of the Midwest region and how undefeated Wichita State got such a tough draw. Along with Michigan and Louisville, the region featured three of the Final Four teams from the previous season. The region was filled out with other great teams such as Duke, Saint Louis and Texas with threatening underdogs such as Tennessee and N.C. State. John Calipari’s group of fabulous freshmen ruined an incredible amount of brackets by fighting its way out of the toughest region as an 8-seed, a feat that will now benefit them in their pursuit of a title.
“Every year it’s a process,” said John Calipari according to Dan Wolken of USA Today. “Some guys get it quicker than others. It took these guys a little longer, and it took me a little longer to figure them out.”
Calipari was referring to other monstrous freshmen classes that he has become famously associated with. Coach Cal won his first NCAA title two seasons ago behind freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who ended up being selected with the first two picks in the following NBA Draft. This will be Kentucky’s third final four in five seasons despite taking a very different route to get there. This team is now the underdog of the tourney due to its mid-season swoon.
This recruiting class has long been heralded as the best in recent memory, with Kentucky landing possibly the best recruiting class in college basketball history. Their starting five of all freshmen is now the first team to win an Elite 8 game starting five neophytes since the Fab Five of Michigan in 1992. The Harrison twins have been stone-cold assassins in the tournament. James Young has hit his share of big shots, and center Dakari Johnson has stepped up immeasurably after a season full of inconsistent playing time. The four have joined Julius Randle to form a terrifying lineup that will undoubtedly give Wisconsin fits in the Final Four.
Kentucky is easily the most dangerous team in the Final Four and is showing that it was only a matter of time before America saw this side of them. The early season defeats at the hands of top-ranked opponents and the hazing they experienced during the three regular season losses to Florida have begun to pay off. The freshmen have now banded together and hit big shot after big shot while dismantling three of last seasons Final Four teams in close games on the way to Dallas. A fourth matchup with Florida in the finals could finally be the one that comes back to bite the Gators.
Commentary by Justin Hussong
Detroit Free Press