A few days away from the Final Four, it looks preposterous that the Kentucky Wildcats are seeded eighth. This means Kentucky joins Virginia Commonwealth, Butler, Wichita State and George Mason as the teams seeded eighth or lower to reach the Final Four since 2001.
On March 1, 2014, Kentucky as an eight seed made sense. It was that night the team was busy losing to South Carolina — which finished only six games under .500 — and the coach was throwing his heralded class of freshmen under the blue-and-white bus.
That day Kentucky was “only” 21-8 after losing three of five. A week later, the Wildcats were smoked by 19 at Florida and had the look of a lost team overburdened by preseason expectations.
“We knew we had a few things to fix,” freshman guard Aaron Harrison said Sunday after his team defeated Michigan in the Elite Eight. “That [South Carolina] was a bad loss, but we knew what kind of team we could be.”
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This was the preseason No. 1 team that one year ago lost in the first round of the NIT.
But this is an entirely new team that plays five freshmen, and its best bench players are freshmen.
(Worth noting: It helped that UK has the best class of freshmen in the nation, including expected 2014 NBA lottery pick Julius Randle).
Today, Kentucky is playing like Kentucky — rolling behind John Calipari’s loaded collection of McDonald’s All-Americans. But do not let their latest tourney run fool you into thinking this was easy.
Just because Kentucky is stacked with talent does not mean this run through to the Final Four was a walk. Forget for a moment that it had to defeat the No. 1 seed (Wichita State), the No. 4 seed (Louisville) and the No. 2 seed (Michigan) in succession — all of which were in the Final Four last season. They had to figure themselves out to make this possible.
As the season progressed, the Wildcats played more like a bubble team than any Final Four lock.
“Every year it’s a process. Some guys get it quicker than others,” Calipari said. “It took these guys a little longer, and it took me a little longer to figure them out.
“So it’s not all them. They were trying.”
One of the “downsides” of recruiting a McDonald’s All-Star team and expecting it to play together immediately is that not one player is accustomed to being anything other than the best player on his team.
Six of Kentucky’s players were in the McDonald’s All-American Game last season. With the possible exception of twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, who played at Fort Bend Travis, all of these guys were expected to carry their previous teams.
“When they all just settled in and lost themselves in the team, the game became easier,” Calipari said. “They became better. They had more fun. They became more confident. And all of a sudden this is what you have. But it took us four months.”
During those four months this team and its coach have been ripped apart. Fans took aim at a group of freshmen who were handed the keys to one of college basketball’s bluest blue-blood programs.
“That was the biggest thing, we just never let criticism get to us,” Randle said after Sunday’s game.
By the time Kentucky reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament, it had figured itself out. Roles were established.
The Wildcats came from behind to defeat Wichita State in the round of 32, Louisville in the Sweet 16 and Michigan in the Elite Eight.
On March 1, 2014, this type of progress seemed inconceivable.
On April 1, 2014, it looks right for Kentucky, which makes its status as an eight seed seem preposterous.