Mac Engel

March 30, 2014

Kentucky is Wal-Mart, and simply bigger than everybody else

Kentucky is playing like the preseason No. 1 team

Just when you thought Wal-Mart could not possibly grow any bigger, it rallied to defeat Target in a thriller at margin call.

The Wal-Mart of college basketball, often referred to as the Kentucky Wildcats, demonstrated once again they own the market while the others, which include national power Michigan, are merely trying to get the leftovers.

For the third time in as many games, Kentucky’s freshman-laden lineup rallied to defeat a higher seed in the final seconds. This time, UK freshman guard Aaron Harrison, who is from Richmond, Texas, hit a looooong 3-pointer with 2.6 seconds remaining to give the Wildcats a 75-72 win in the Elite Eight. It was the end to a brilliant, highly entertaining three games for Kentucky in this latest tournament run.

Kentucky is now the second team to reach the Final Four starting five freshmen; the first was Michigan in 1991, which reached the title game, with the Fab Five. This time, because college basketball has changed so dramatically since then, do not be surprised if UK’s Fab Five win the title this time.

“It doesn’t matter about the age anymore,” Aaron Harrison said.

Yes. We’ve noticed.

Somehow, Kentucky was seeded eighth in this latest NCAA tournament, and on Sunday the Wildcats shot the selection committee’s better judgment all to hell by relying on a wide array of NBA-level talent to reach another Final Four. Arlington, plug your ears, Kentucky Nation and its merry band of student-athletes are coming to JerryWorld this week.

A warning: This may be the single most obnoxious, self-congratulatory, priority-skewed fan base in a nation full of them. To them, Sunday’s outcome is a birthright. To their credit, they are usually right.

For the third consecutive NCAA game against a higher seed, Kentucky rallied from a double-digit deficit, this time against second-seeded Michigan. The Wildcats will play Wisconsin in the second national semifinal on Saturday at AT&T Stadium, where they should be a heavy favorite to advance to the title game.

This Final Four should pretty much put an end to any thought that parity rules college basketball; three of the last seven NCAA champions will be in Arlington — Florida, UConn and Kentucky.

It took awhile, but Kentucky is playing like the preseason No. 1 team. This is not the same team that lost by five against Baylor at AT&T Stadium on Dec. 20.

“We played six freshmen — no — we we played seven freshmen today, didn’t we?” UK coach John Calipari said. “We played seven freshmen.”

Why the surprise? That has been Coach Cal’s design since he arrived in Lexington in 2009.

This team has figured things out. They defeated No. 1-seeded Wichita State in the Round of 32 by two, fourth-seeded Louisville by five, and now Michigan by three.

“Kansas State is good, too, by the way,” Calipari said of Kentucky’s first-round win. “I hate to say this — they play better when they are down. They bow their neck. Each game, we got down, and we come back and win it at the end. They can’t be afraid of missing a shot; just make a play.”

The Wildcats are using a similar formula they used two years ago when they won the NCAA tournament with only a slight twist — a bunch of freshmen who are so talented they overcome any weaknesses created by that now very needless “advantage” of experience. The Kentucky team that won the tournament two years ago never played in a close game, whereas this team is rallying to win late.

“Totally different animals; we had four guys on that team that went to the Final Four,” Calipari said. “This, we are going in a little blind. We have good skill, we have good size, and good toughness. It is two totally different teams.”

This Kentucky team is so talented, and so tall, they are a matchup made from a McDonald’s All-American playground, even for Michigan.

No player in UK’s rotation is shorter than 6-foot-6, and they are so deep a 6-foot-9 freshman like Marcus Lee can hardly get off the bench. Against Michigan’s smaller front line, Lee scored 10 points with eight rebounds. The last time Lee scored 10 points was Nov. 19 against UT Arlington.

UK outrebounded Michigan 35-24.

“I was trying to do my part,” Lee said. “Throughout practices and shootarounds, I got more confident because our team got more confident.”

Combine their natural ability and confidence from winning close games against power teams, and Kentucky looks almost as good as the team that won the title two years.

Walmart wins again.

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