UK’s talent really may be NBA-caliber … and more Elite Eight takeaways
Kentucky's Aaron Harrison is congratulated by teammates Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson (44) after making a three-point basket in the final seconds of the NCAA Midwest Regional final against Michigan on Sunday in Indianapolis. Kentucky won 75-72 to advance to the Final Four.
The shot came from NBA range, and if things play out as expected, Aaron Harrison and a lot of those Kentucky kids will be playing in that league soon enough.
First, they’re heading to the Final Four — courtesy of Harrison’s unforgettable big shot.
The 6-foot-6 guard made a 3-pointer from about 24 feet with 2.3 seconds left Sunday to lift the Wildcats and all those freshmen to a 75-72 win over Michigan and the program’s 16th trip to the Final Four.
What a ride this has been for this group of Wildcats, an all-new collection of McDonald’s All-Americans who were touted as the team that could go 40-0, then dismissed out of hand when the bad losses and bad basketball piled up in January and February.
Coach John Calipari got things turned around by March, and for the second straight game in the Midwest Regional, Harrison made the shot that gave the Wildcats the lead for good. On Friday, he made the key 3 in Kentucky’s 74-69 win over Louisville. Kentucky is the first team to knock the defending champion and runner-up out of the same tournament.
Harrison scored 12 points off four 3-pointers over the last 8:05 and was Calipari’s obvious choice to take the game-winner.
"I’ve been around guys who make these kind of plays," Calipari said. "I’ve always said, `You cannot be afraid to miss.’ He’s not afraid to miss. That’s the whole thing about making those kind of plays. And if he does miss, he’s going to shoot it again."
It wasn’t all Harrison, of course.
While he was being shut down early, it was Marcus Lee — surprisingly — keeping the Wildcats in the game.
Lee, another of the McDonald’s All-American freshmen on Calipari’s roster, had scored a total of nine points since the beginning of January, relegated to the bench after an early season illness.
In this one, he got minutes that would have normally gone to the injured Willie Cauley-Stein, and finished with 10 points and eight rebounds. Eight of those points came on put-back dunks that were part of Kentucky’s 18 offensive rebounds.
"In that stage, that atmosphere, that game, to make that shot and send us to the Final Four, it’s just amazing. I was proud of him and it was shocking at the same time," said freshman forward Julius Randle, who finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds. He’s a Dallas kid and will play in the sport’s biggest spectacle not far from home.
If that doesn’t feel like hitting the lottery, well, a few weeks later, he probably will. Randle is considered lottery pick material if he decides to go to the NBA, as expected. Others could join him in the Association, the latest group of one-and-done Wildcats that Calipari has put together.
They’ll deal with that in 10 days or so.
It’s a lost art, really. There was a time when making free throws was a valued part of college basketball. Now, it’s almost thought of as old school. If your team makes almost 70 percent from the line, hey that’s not too bad.
That’s what makes this current Connecticut run so incredible. On Sunday in the Elite Eight, the Huskies shot 21-of-22 from the line. In this day and age, that 95.5-percent clip is pretty insane. And it was only a slight improvement over UConn’s free-throw shooting in the Sweet 16 on Friday night against Iowa State: 20-of-22 (90.9 percent).
So if you’re counting (and we are), that means Connecticut has shot 41-of-44 from the stripe in the past two games. That’s otherworldly and a huge, huge reason why the Huskies are in the Final Four and Michigan State and Iowa State are going home.
Florida had better take note — try to get some separation on UConn before the closing minutes. That didn’t work the first time the teams played. Florida has only two losses this season, and one was to Connecticut. The Huskies were only 8-of-11 from the line on Dec. 2, but it was enough to pull out a 65-64 win.
Much like his team, we didn’t enter the tournament talking about Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky. Why did so few know about him until his 28-point performance in Saturday’s 64-63, overtime victory over Arizona? The simple truth is that up until this season, he didn’t play much, averaging just 13 minutes a game in 2012-13. But, boy, has he blossomed this season.
"He’s growing into his body mentally, physically, socially," Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. "They tell me he’s funnier than he used to be, too."
Whether or not Kaminsky evolves into the next Chris Rock, one simple truth is that the Badgers wouldn’t be headed to Dallas without him. For whatever he lacks on the surface (elite athleticism, raw power), he makes up for it once the ball is thrown in the air.
He’s a center who can bang down low, but also stretch the floor like a small forward: Kaminsky led Wisconsin in both 3-pointers made Saturday (three) as well as rebounds (10). And the latter may have been the most impressive part. In a matchup with three guys who could play in the NBA (Arizona’s Aaron Gordon, Kaleb Tarczewski and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson), Kaminsky was the best player in the post and the best player on the floor.
"He was a beast," teammate Ben Brust put it succinctly.
It wasn’t just so much about the stats Kaminsky put up, but rather the significance of them. It seemed that every time the Badgers needed a play, it was their 7-foot center who provided it.
He nailed a three to tie it at 34 early in the second half, the first time all game that it really felt like, "Wow, the Badgers have a chance."
He hit another three for a 50-48 lead near the end of regulation. And once it went to overtime, he was simply spectacular. Give him credit for a hockey assist on Brust’s three to open the period (the pass before the pass that set up the bucket) and then he scored six points over the remainder of the period.
For the first time in four years, Billy Donovan’s Gators won’t be heading home after an Elite Eight game. And it was because of their four senior starters.
Scottie Wilbekin played with the otherworldly confidence he always plays with, scoring 23 points, including a gut-punch of a 3 at the horn to end the first half. Center Patric Young played like a man possessed, with 12 points, six rebounds, four blocks and two steals. And Casey Prather and Will Yeguete combined for 10 points and 14 rebounds.
"I was just in disbelief," Young said later. "It still hasn’t hit me that we’re going to be one of the Final Four teams in the country still playing for an opportunity at the championship. You always set your goal to make it here, especially last year when we ended in the same position, but we were the other team. It was kind of weird because I’m so used to walking into my locker room after that final buzzer."
This time, they came in as the country’s top-ranked team and the overall No. 1 seed. Florida won its 30th straight game and improved to 36-2, topping the 35 wins by the 2007 national championship squad.
"In a lot of ways, outside the Michigan game, we were close to being in three out of four Final Fours right now, and that says a lot about these guys," Donovan said. "But I think those experiences maybe helped us be a better team this year than maybe we would have if we’d have gotten to a couple of ones earlier."