Kentucky men show maturity at an ideal time
A disappointment for part of the regular season, a young Kentucky team has displayed poise and unselfishness during its run to the Final Four.
The Associated Press
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky’s postseason run underscores it is more important how you finish than how you start.
The Wildcats were expected to be brief postseason participants after beginning March by losing two of three Southeastern Conference games and falling out of the Top 25 heading into the SEC tournament. Kentucky (28-10) has won six of its last seven to reach its third Final Four in four years.
The way Kentucky stumbled into the postseason, not many expected the young Wildcats to have NCAA tournament success.
While the Wildcats started the season ranked No. 1 as a collection of talented individuals, they are playing with the poise and cohesion that had been missing. Kentucky has won close games and is two victories from its ninth national championship.
Kentucky coach John Calipari hasn’t specified the “tweaks” he made before the SEC and NCAA tournaments that have made this run possible. What’s clear, though, entering Saturday’s matchup against Wisconsin (30-7) is that the tweaks have resulted in the chemistry and performances he envisioned.
The timing couldn’t be better.
“Maybe they weren’t ready to accept (them) two months ago,” Calipari said of the changes during a conference call Monday. “Maybe they had to fail more. Maybe they had to understand that you must surrender to your team, you must lose yourself in your team and understand that less is more when you’re talking about team play.
“If they were ready to accept it two months ago, we wouldn’t have been an eighth seed playing the gauntlet that we just played.”
Highlighting their coming-of-age performances are rallies against then-undefeated Wichita State and defending champion Louisville, and Sunday’s Midwest Region final victory over Michigan. Against the Wolverines, the Wildcats controlled the tempo and put themselves in position to win the game.
“It just shows that we have really grown up,” freshman center Dakari Johnson said after the 75-72 victory. “We just executed the way we were supposed to.”
The Wildcats have had many defeats to learn from this season, but dropping three of five down the stretch highlighted the frustrating growing pains of six high-school All-Americans learning to play unselfishly.
During the losses, players appeared tentative out of fear Calipari would bench them for making a mistake, or they tried too hard to make something happen with forced shots or passes.
Then there were those pained facial reactions to foul calls, another lesson for the Wildcats — that play is over, move on to the next one.
Players have better managed their emotions and executed during a postseason where their only loss was by one point in the SEC championship to top-seeded Florida. They could meet the Gators for the fourth time this season if both reach Monday’s championship game in Arlington, Texas.
Kentucky freshman Julius Randle remains a double-double threat despite being double-teamed and is demanding the ball more in the paint. Seven-footer Johnson has started the past seven games and been more assertive under the basket on both ends.