clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Kentucky Basketball: 2013-14 Season Postmortem Part 5 - The Assault On The Summit Of College Basketball Begins

In part five of the 2013-14 season postmortem, the Wildcats begin their assault on the NCAA Tournament championship.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

As we approach Big Blue Bahamas, its time to close the book on the 2013-14 season. Our detailed postmortem has taken us all the way through the season, through the SEC Tournament, and to the brink of the NCAA Tournament that saw Kentucky enter as it’s highest seed in years and leave with a remarkable second-place finish. Of course, we don’t think much of runner-up finishes here in the Bluegrass, but after this season’s highs and lows, it seemed a remarkable feat.

At this point, on the cusp of the Big Dance, the mood of the Big Blue Nation was still restive, but there were murmurs of "Could we really make a run?" and "This may be the most talented high seed ever." Those murmurs would soon grow louder, and herald the emergence of a Kentucky team six months out of phase with expectations.

The setup

Having lost in the final seconds to the Florida Gators in the SEC Tournament, Kentucky had nonetheless seemingly found itself. While most of the Big Blue Nation were intrigued by the possibilities after the conference tournament, they knew that Kentucky was unlikely to get better than a six or seven seed.

What happened, though, was that Kentucky wound up an eight seed in what quickly became known as the Region of Death. Kentucky would start out with the Kansas State Wildcats, an offensively-challenged Big 12 team that had made their living on defense. If the Wildcats managed to get past K-State, their next opponent would be the #1 seed in the Midwest Region, the Wichita State Shockers.

Kentucky fans were dismayed by the seed, but resigned to the reality that it was, for the most part, what the Wildcats had earned. Most of the Big Blue Nation was steeling themselves for a first-weekend exit from the NCAA tournament for the first time in the John Calipari era.

Kansas State Wildcats (9 seed)

The Kansas State game was an unremarkable affair. Kentucky and K-State started out roughly even, but after 11 or 12 minutes, Kentucky had built up a significant lead that stayed around ten points. Kansas State was not done, however, and got the lead down to six at the half.

But Julius Randle wasn’t about to let the rather ordinary purple Wildcats derail Kentucky. His relentless labor produced a prodigious game, with 19 points and 15 rebounds, and combined with Aaron Harrison’s outstanding shooting for 18 points, the Wildcats wound up grinding out a 56-49 victory and earning the right to play #1 seeded Wichita State in the second round.

Witchita State Shockers (1 seed)

Kentucky had struggled all year to defeat top quality out-of-conference teams, managing it only once in the regular season when they defeated the Louisville Cardinals in Lexington. They were facing the top seed in the Midwest Region in the Shockers, a team who had lost exactly zero games all year long. Not only would Kentucky be facing one of tournament favorites, but one who did not know how to lose.

This was unquestionably one of the most memorable individual games in the Calipari era, and we happen to think that it was arguably the most memorable game since the 2005 Elite Eight overtime loss to the Michigan State Spartans. Kentucky was a four-point underdog to the Shockers, which seemed surprisingly small for a struggling eight seed like Kentucky facing an undefeated squad. But the reality was that Wichita State was unproven against a tough schedule, with most of their 35 victories coming against teams ranked well over 150 in Kent Pomeroy’s rankings. There was also the fact of Kentucky’s vast, but erratic talent.

The game between Wichita State and Kentucky was vaguely reminiscent of the unforgettable 1992 Elite Eight game between the Duke Blue Devils and Kentucky in that it was an offensive tour-de-force. Midway through the first half, the Shockers went on a run that burst them nine clear of the Wildcats, a lead they held within a narrow band most of the second part of the first stanza. But a three from James Young after a nice pass by plucky Jarrod Polson brought Kentucky back within six when the teams adjourned to their locker rooms.

The second half of this contest was as pretty a half of basketball as you will ever see. It started out with a three by Cleanthony Early to push the Wichita State back out to nine. A put-back dunk by Randle and a 3-pointer by Aaron Harrison, followed by yet another offensive rebound and putback by Randle got Kentucky back within a field goal.

From there on, the game was a back-and-forth affair with both teams taking small leads but neither able to build on them. Offensively, both teams were very efficient at over 1.2 points per possession, and although the Shockers shot the ball better, they simply could not deal with the Wildcats on the backboard. Also, to the surprise of many, Kentucky made their free throws, while Wichita State, normally a good free-throw shooting team, struggled a little.

The heroics began when James Young took a defensive rebound off a Fred Van Vleet miss and raced down the court to make a layup, putting Kentucky ahead by one. Early made a shot on the next possession to regain the lead for Wichita State, but Young struck again, this time from beyond the arc, to give Kentucky a 2-point cushion with only 101 seconds to go. Tekele Cotton missed a three, which Young was again there to rebound, leading to two Andrew Harrison free throws. Ron Baker’s three on the next possession put the game back within a single point with 29 seconds left.

On the next possession, Early would foul Randle, who calmly made the two most pressure-packed free throws of his short Kentucky career to date. Early would then score the last two points of his magnificent Shockers career with two free throws, capping off a 31-point seven rebound effort that would bring his team just short of advancing. The Kentucky lead was one.

Andrew Harrison was fouled by Ron Baker on the ensuing possession, and Harrison managed to split the pair. Kentucky had a two point lead with seven ticks remaining. WSU ran the ball up over half court and called a timeout. Three seconds remained in the Shocker’s undefeated season. The last-second 3-point attempt by Fred Van Vleet was off-line all the way, and Kentucky had pulled off one of the biggest NCAA Tournament upsets in it’s history, made even more impressive by their profoundly mediocre regular season.

After the thrill of one of the biggest upsets we’ve witnessed by a Kentucky team in years began to wear off, the Big Blue Nation turned it’s attention to their next opponent — the bitterest of our rivals, the Louisville Cardinals, had advanced to meet Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen for the right to move on to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.

The Louisville Cardinals (4 Seed)

Compared to the Final Four meeting with Louisville in 2012, this Sweet Sixteen contest was very slightly anticlimactic.  Kentucky knew they could beat Louisville, having done so earlier that year.  The Cardinals were better, but so was Kentucky, and the resurgent Wildcats had just defeated a better team than Louisville was.  But a rivalry is a rivalry, and the Cardinals had the kind of small, dynamic guards that had given Kentucky trouble all year in Russ Smith and Chris Jones.

Suddenly, Kentucky was living in the hugeness of the moment, particularly Aaron Harrison and James Young — that place we only dream about as children where momentous, challenged shots go in with a snap of the net and the roar of the crowd.

But the Wildcats, unfortunately, did not come to play early. Seven minutes into the game, the Cardinals amassed an impressive 13 point early bulge, due to Kentucky gunning away in futility from three and turning the ball over liberally. But it would not last. Gradually, in fits and starts, Kentucky worked its way back into the game and by half time, the Louisville lead was three.

It was free throw shooting that really hurt Louisville. Kentucky had often struggled from the line during the season, but in the post-season, they started making them at a high rate, and that would be a huge factor in the outcome of this game, a game that Louisville seemed more prepared for than Kentucky.

Louisville would lead the Wildcats for almost the entire second half, until about 4:30 left in the game. At that point, the Wildcats would hold the Cardinals without a single point for over two minutes, and tied the game at 66 with 2:11 remaining. Dakari Johnson would be a big factor in the comeback, but it was the combination of Alex Poythress’ power and Aaron Harrison’s dagger three that would eventually put Kentucky over the top. In the last 4:33, Louisville would score three points — Kentucky would score fifteen. The final count was 75-69 Kentucky, and for the second straight game, the Wildcats had defied the odds.

It was at this moment that the Big Blue Nation began to realize that the mighty fist of Destiny had seized the Wildcats, and was dragging them forward to an unknown, but certainly less ignominious fate than we had collectively foreseen. Suddenly, Kentucky was living in the hugeness of the moment, particularly Aaron Harrison and James Young — that place we only dream about as children where momentous, challenged shots go in with a snap of the net and the roar of the crowd.

For the second time in three seasons, the Wildcats banished the Louisville Cardinals from the NCAA Tournament. Their next test would be the most powerful offensive basketball team remaining — the Michigan Wolverines.

The Final Four looms

We’ll address the Final Four, and the season overall in the last installment of this postmortem. After defeating Louisville, Kentucky had managed to overwhelm the recalibrated expectations of the Big Blue Nation and drag all but the most optimistic Kentucky fans into a sense of almost religious wonder. Despite a regular season that could barely have been less successful and still ended with Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats had taken their eight seed all the way to the last weekend of the NCAA basketball season, and in doing so had taken arguably the most difficult path of any of the Final Four participants.

Perhaps more significantly, this was only the second time that a Calipari-coached Kentucky team had actually exceeded expectations. The first time was in 2010-11, when Kentucky rose up at the end of the season and managed to make a run to the Final Four. But this time was even more unexpected, perhaps by an order of magnitude. Unlike the 2011 team who was clearly rising at the end of the season and won the SEC Tournament outright before moving on to a Final Four, this Wildcats team swooned at season’s end in an embarrassing way, and although they played better in the early post-season, they were hardly world-beaters until the NCAA Tournament itself.

What really helped Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament was both improved free throw shooting and vastly improved 3-point shooting. The "tweak" that Calipari made to the offense created more open shots from the perimeter, which Kentucky finally began making, as well as improving the Wildcats' floor spacing. In addition, Poythress and Johnson began to assert themselves powerfully, and that was enough to propel Kentucky to two hard-earned victories where they were the underdog.  Defense was still only average during this run, but with the offense clicking like it was, it was enough.

The 2013-14 Kentucky team was a remarkable study in contrasts, struggling to defeat quality teams in the regular season, and even suffering a couple of major, embarrassing upsets at the hands of markedly inferior teams. They gave Wildcats fans no reason to believe in them, and yet they managed to live up to their unprecedented hype in the end.

The journey may have been disappointing, but the destination was not. The roller-coaster ride continues in the final episode.