Young Wildcats have heard the naysayers
INDIANAPOLIS — The team that just eliminated Wichita State and Louisville from the NCAA tournament lost four weeks ago to South Carolina.
That was two days after a home loss to Arkansas; a second loss to Arkansas, actually. Early losses to Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina were nationally televised and understandable, frankly; a much smaller audience saw what should have been a loss to Cleveland State.
Still, there were plenty of opinions out there about Kentucky and John Calipari’s latest freshman experiment.
Now that the No. 8 seed Wildcats are in the Elite Eight, Calipari thinks both the team’s struggles and the negativity that followed helped. Amidst his team’s best stretch of basketball, in which his all-freshman starting lineup advanced to play Michigan on Sunday for a spot in the Final Four, Calipari has talked repeatedly about the bad times, the bad vibes and bad things people said about these Wildcats along the way.
Some coaches block it out or at least claim to not give any outside criticism or analysis a second thought. Not Calipari.
"Now, does that stuff make me mad? Yes, it does," Calipari said. "Oh, yeah. Because some of it is personal. Some of it is agenda driven, where guys want to hurt the program and they’re taking it out on these kids. And it’s not right.
"But they withstood it all. It made them better. It made them stronger."
Calipari said he’s coaching better — "tweaks" and scheme adjustments he won’t discuss publicly until after the season — and that the freshmen are having more fun, playing loosely and with more confidence. A second-half rally that fell short in the SEC tournament title game against Final Four qualifier Florida showed the Kentucky freshmen that they were close.
Three games deep into the NCAA tournament, any remaining doubt has been erased. Internally and externally.
"This is the only thing I know," freshman forward Julius Randle said. "I mean, the hardest part about playing with all the talent that we have is, you know, just figuring each other out. You know, just figuring out how to sacrifice ourselves. But the best thing is, you know, what we’ve been through, we came together. And it just never fazed us."
The pressure not just to play well but to win and win big, Aaron Harrison said, is something these players "wear every day. You go to the University of Kentucky. People are saying you’re going 40-0. That’s pressure. That’s every day."
Asked what the low point of the season was, Andrew Harrison first said, "Maybe losing at home to Arkansas. No disrespect to any of the teams we lost to, but South Carolina. Losing to them was a pretty low point."
Calipari remembers several low points, but he never asked for a bunker mentality. He told his players to quit reading Twitter and watching television talking heads analyzing their every move, but asked his players to remember that it was all out there.
And to use it as motivation.
"We grew up," Calipari said. "We have 18-, 19-year-olds that were counted out and ridiculed and crushed. People said ‘They can’t play, (they’re not) any good, (they’re) bad guys.’
"I mean, you’ve got a bunch of good guys up here that have stuck together through all the barrage, never let it affect them together. They kept believing and they believed in the staff, and they know because I told them the whole time I was never going to give up on any individual or a team. I won’t. We’ll go to whatever we have to try to do to do this."
After the Anthony Davis-led Wildcats won the national championship in 2012, Nerlens Noel got hurt late in the 2013 regular season and Kentucky went on to make a first-round exit — from the NIT. Whether or not it’s as bad as Calipari believes it to be or has spun it in his own locker room, much of the criticism of Calipari and Kentucky comes from the one-and-done players the program has produced and the freshman-driven, hype-driven lineups Calipari puts out there every season.
"This team was never going to be last year’s team," Calipari said. "This team has size, talent, skill. We just had to come together as a team."
Said Aaron Harrison: "If we didn’t lose those games, I don’t know how strong we would be. It wasn’t just the losing but the way we lost. We wouldn’t put it all together."
Now, at 27-10, Kentucky is three wins from a national championship. In the past seven days the ‘Cats have beaten the nation’s lone unbeaten team and last year’s national champion, another team that was peaking and looking very dangerous. Kentucky came from behind in both games; the ‘Cats beat Louisville after trailing, 18-5, and Calipari said he knew his young players "would pee down their legs."
On Saturday, all five freshman starters sat a podium with Calipari and discussed their journey. When Calipari asked them, rhetorically, to raise a hand if this has been hard, he saw six hands go up.
Andrew Harrison raised both.
They’re just kids. Maybe they needed the big stage to truly grow up.