Win over Shockers reveals the Kentucky team that Calipari knew he had all along
ST. LOUIS — This whole thing took longer than John Calipari had hoped.
The Kentucky basketball coach knew he had a talented team coming into the season. He recruited the best class in the country, arguably the best of all time, with five players ranked among Rivals’ top 11 prospects. Then the Wildcats were tabbed as the preseason No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since the 1995-96 season.
It was all too much, too soon for the youngsters, who struggled at times under the weight of those expectations. They lost close games to Michigan State in November, to Baylor and North Carolina in December and then six times in Southeastern Conference play.
But they kept getting better. Kentucky showed that, proved that, on Sunday when the eighth-seeded Wildcats knocked off No. 1 seed and previously undefeated Wichita State 78-76 at Scottrade Center to advance to the Sweet 16.
"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 that you don’t play well. But they believed in themselves."
The Shockers were the story of the tournament, but Calipari’s ‘Cats reminded everyone what all the fuss was about five months ago.
"I told them after the game, ‘I’ve been hard on you like I’ve been every team, it’s just been a longer process with you guys,’" the coach said. "But at the end of the day, you are seeing that they understand what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. I didn’t do as good a job in defining roles — that’s on me, not on these young people here. But I’m just proud."
When Fred VanVleet’s long 3-point attempt bounced off the back iron at the buzzer, the Kentucky players celebrated like they’d just won a championship. And, just maybe, that’s how this whole thing turns out.
Willie Cauley-Stein said it felt like 5 million pounds off his shoulders.
With the way this season has unfolded in Lexington, that sounds about right.
"You’re looking at the crowd and they are all going crazy and then you look at their fans and they are crying," Cauley-Stein said. "You don’t want to be in that position. When you look at that, you almost feel bad because a couple more different outcomes of the game, different rebounds and shots that they make and we miss, and we’re on the other side."
That is the madness of March. Had VanVleet’s shot been true, the Shockers are 36-0 and Calipari, Cauley-Stein and the rest of the ‘Cats are answering question after question about where it all went wrong.
Actually, they’ve probably done that enough already this season.
"A lot of people counted us out the first game, let alone this game," Cauley-Stein said. "It just proves to show that we just kept on fighting through all the bad stuff that happened to us this season. We’re playing with the will to win, and we’re playing with more energy and effort now and that’s the game, especially in tournament time."
Kentucky showed it has grown from its previous struggles and, really, what would you expect from a team that starts five freshmen and counts two sophomores among its top seven players?
There were twin freshman guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison combining for 39 points, five 3-pointers, four assists (also nine turnovers) and two steals.
There was freshman forward Julius Randle flirting with a triple-double with 13 points, a game-high 10 rebounds and six assists. There was James Young, another freshman forward, who added 13 points, three threes and eight boards. There were the sophomores, Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, coming off the bench to contribute 10 points, five rebounds, two blocked shots and two steals.
But there also were the Wildcats, trailing by five points with just 4:36 left, refusing to quit.
"Early in the year we probably would have folded — I’m not going to lie about that," said 7-foot freshman center Dakari Johnson. "But when we listen to Coach and really buy in to what he has to say, we’re a tough team to beat."
It took a little while for them to buy in. They can admit that now.
Months ago this was possibly the most talented group Calipari had ever assembled, but it was a collection of kids from Texas, New York, Michigan, Kansas, Tennessee and Kentucky.
But it wasn’t a team yet. That took time. Longer than Cal had hoped.
But the 19,676 gathered at Scottrade Center on Sunday — and the rest of the college basketball world watching on TV — saw how far the Wildcats have come and got a glimpse of how far they are capable of going in this tournament.
"Here’s what’s happened with this team," Calipari said. "They now are putting themselves in a position where they’re accepting roles how they have to play. So we’re becoming a better team. Individuals are losing themselves into the team, so they’re playing better and more confident.
"And then the other thing is, because we’ve been through so much throughout the year, they’re stronger. So a little lull in the game doesn’t affect them. They’ve been through all that. Their will to win, to stay with it, all that they’ve been up against. And like I told them today, I just wish we had another month of the season left, like keep playing. Because we’re getting better every day."
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at email@example.com.