When the Wisconsin Badgers take the court in Arlington, Texas Saturday night in the Final Four, it is quite possible they will square off against the most talented team in the country – the Kentucky Wildcats.
Don’t let the 8-seed confuse you, Kentucky is good. Really good. They weren’t the preseason number-one team for no reason.
Coached by John Calipari, master of the one-and-done recruit, Kentucky has lived and died by that philosophy. The Wildcats were national champions in the 2011-12 season, but had a disastrous 2012-13 campaign, failing to make the NCAA Tournament and falling in the first round of the NIT tourney.
Looking to rebound from that embarrassment, Calipari and Kentucky wrecked it on the recruiting trail last offseason.
The 2013-14 Wildcats landed Julius Randle, widely considered the top power forward in the recruiting class and the Rivals.com number two overall player, the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, who were each considered top-five recruits, as well as James Young, ESPN’s number six prospect, and Dakari Johnson, Rivals’ number nine overall recruit.
Add 2012-13 holdovers Willie Caulie-Stein and Alex Poythress to the mix, and no one can blame any pundit for choosing this team to be the top squad heading into 2013.
Well, sometimes what looks great on paper just doesn’t hold up in real life, and that seemed to be the case as the 2013-14 season got underway.
Kentucky began the season a respectable 8-3, but failed to defeat a ranked team in that span, losing to #2 Michigan State, #20 Baylor, and #18 North Carolina.
The rest of the season was kind of a mystery, as one week would see Kentucky defeating #6 Louisville, the next they were falling to Arkansas in overtime.
The Wildcats finished 28-10 on the season, taking second in conference with a 12-6 SEC record. Kentucky finished the year 3-6 against teams who made the NCAA tourney, although three of those losses came against top overall seed Florida, the third a one-point loss in the SEC Tournament Championship.
While Kentucky’s overall record was considered a disappointment, everyone has noticed Randle’s strong play.
While he didn’t always take over games the way it was expected of him, Randle led Kentucky this year, averaging 15.1 points and 10.7 rebounds per contest. He is considered to be a surefire top-five draft pick following the season.
Adding to Randle’s play, Young and the Harrison twins each scored in double-digits this season. Kentucky stuck mostly to a seven-man rotation of Randle, Young, the Harrisons, Cauley-Stein, Poythress and Johnson.
Heading into the tournament, Kentucky earned an eight-seed, an underwhelming position for the pre-season number one team.
The Wildcats survived the 8-9 game, taking down Kansas State by six points and setting up a matchup with the undefeated Wichita State Shockers. In one of the most exciting games of the tournament, Kentucky out-lasted Wichita State and earned a two-point victory.
They advanced to take on the four-seed Louisville Cardinals, earning a five-point win over the in-state rival. Kentucky then took down two-seed Michigan in the Elite Eight to earn a berth in the Final Four.
Their talent is undeniable. Kentucky defeated Michigan without Cauley-Stein, who sat out with an injury. His availability for the Final Four is currently doubtful.
Without Cauley-Stein, Kentucky looked to Marcus Lee for some big minutes. Lee, a freshman who averaged just 6.1 minutes a game this season, came in and scored 10 points, adding eight rebounds and two blocks. By the way, Lee, the third man off the bench for Kentucky this year, was Rivals’ 17th ranked recruit before the season.
While Kentucky is literally and figuratively loaded with talent, one thing they haven’t consistently done this season is play together as a team. Where a team like Wisconsin might not have the big name recruits (Frank Kaminsky, the West region’s most outstanding player, for example, was a three-star Rivals recruit) they have proved they know how to play as a team and compete on the biggest stage.
Tags: 2014 NCAA Tournament Aaron Harrison Andrew Harrison Basketball Bo Ryan Dakari Johnson Final Four Frank Kaminsky James Young John Calipari Julius Randle Kentucky Wildcats Marcus Lee Wisconsin Badgers