Kentucky Basketball: The Wildcats are getting Good at Playing Underdogs

Andy Lyons

The Kentucky Wildcats have found themselves in unfamiliar territory as the NCAA tournament's Cinderella team.

It's not all the time that a team that has eight national championships and 15 Final Four appearances is considered to be an underdog. Usually, a team with that much pedigree is lingering between a one, two, three, or four seed in the NCAA tournament.

But not this team. The 2014 Kentucky Wildcats are an eight seed in the tournament and were counted out of title contention back on March first when they left Columbia, South Carolina with tears in their eyes and an "L" in the win/loss column. The narrative was already written and the dirt was being dumped on the casket: this team was a collection of talent, unmet expectations, and disappointment.

Things got worse when they went down to Gainesville and got taken to the woodshed by the future overall number one seed, losing a game that never felt close by a score of 84-65.

The talking heads and the experts were all saying that this Wildcat team may not win another tournament game all season, conference or NCAA. Whatever the problem was, it was too late to fix it and John Calipari failed to put together a group of young hotshots for a second year in a row. One and Done was so over.

But something funny happened. It all started with a "tweak" before the Wildcats' first SEC tournament game against a scary LSU Tiger team. Fans groaned at the prospect of playing Johnny O`Bryant III and Anthony Hickey for a third time and looked at it as a match-up made in Hell. But the Wildcats responded in Atlanta by pounding the Tigers 85-67. They then went on to beat the Georgia Bulldogs 70-58.

Things seemed to be clicking for the ‘Cats, and it was the perfect timing because the Gators were there to meet them in the SEC tournament final. Florida once again defeated Kentucky, but it was by only one point on a neutral court and if wasn't for a slip in the last second by James Young, it could have been a victory.

After all of that, John Calipari's team was given an eight seed. Was it deserved? That's debatable, but they didn't do themselves any favors to convince the selection committee otherwise down the stretch. Their first weekend in the tournament was a difficult one against the Kansas State Wildcats and then a probable game against the Wichita State Shockers.

Kentucky was favored against Kansas State, but nobody would have been surprised if they would have bowed out in the first round. Instead, they survived against a team that had defeated Kansas, Iowa State, and Texas.

Next up were the 35-0 Shockers, America's darlings. Vegas had the ‘Cats as a five point underdog. All of the pundits were picking Wichita State to win one for college basketball, to show these cocky high school players that this was a game meant for student-athletes, not guys just passing through on their way to big checks, hot women and shoe deals.

The CBS pre-game show felt like an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on Gregg Marshall's team. Little thought was given to the Wildcats. And why would the network linger on the Kiddie Cats? Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Tyler Ennis, all freshman phenoms, had already been ousted from the tournament. Wichita State was going to do it again, this time sending home six in one fatal blow, much like the brave little tailor.

The culmination came when the CBS analysis team of Charles Barkley, Clark Kellogg and Kenny Smith all confidently picked Wichita State to send the ‘Cats packing. Sir Charles even signed off with a loud "Go Shockers!"

We all witnessed what happened next. The group of long shots punched and counter-punched with the heavy favorite for 40 exhilarating minutes. And in the end, the new David beat the old David. Goliath wasn't in St. Louis and out of slingshot range.

The following night on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams a picture of Julius Randle and the Harrison Twins graced the screen with the word "Cinderella" as the caption. Just think about that for a second: Kentucky is all of a sudden the Cinderella team of the NCAA tournament.

And now they find themselves as the underdogs again against arch-rival Louisville. Las Vegas has the Cards as a five point favorite, much like Wichita State. All the pundits and the experts are again picking the Cards and their experience over Kentucky's youth.

Never mind that Kentucky beat Louisville in December with their best player sitting out the entire second half and the fact that Louisville had Chane Behanan at the time. Never mind that Kentucky has a clear height, muscle and athletic advantage. Pay no mind that the ‘Cats are playing like a team for the first time. Forget the "eye test" that people kept bringing up as reasoning why Louisville really should be a one or a two and not a four. Because, after all, Louisville was blowing out Houston, South Florida, Temple and Central Florida before the tournament: they were passing the eye test. All Kentucky has done is beat a legitimate 35-0 Final Four caliber team, a Kansas State team that had its moments in the Big 12, and came within one point of beating Florida. Apparently the eye test only counts during the regular season.

And the other eye test that doesn't seem to matter is that Louisville struggled to beat Manhattan and St. Louis and looked lousy while doing it. But the excuses for the Cards came in abundance: the Cards struggled against Manhattan because Steve Masiello knew their players and their plays and St. Louis likes to "ugly the game up", etc...

And now here we are: Kentucky is a firm underdog against their top rival. There doubters are still out there, the ones saying that Kentucky's freshmen are going to lapse and the grizzled vets from another team are going to prevail. That's fine. John Calipari believes and he has his team believing. He has his fan base believing.

It's not very often that a program like Kentucky gets to wear the Cinderella slipper. But hey, if the shoe fits, keep on dancing.

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