The 2014 version of the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team is one that took us on a roller coaster of emotion from start to finish. The 'Cats were coming off the disappointing NIT loss and had just finalized a recruiting class being hailed as potentially the greatest of all-time.
Kentucky was losing a top draft pick in Nerlens Noel, Kyle Wiltjer would transfer for more playing time, and Archie Goodwin would enter the draft despite being a lottery pick.
In addition to the phenomenal class coming in, the 2014 'Cats had Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress coming back for their Sophomore seasons. Adding those two returnees to the six burger boys below (5 Consensus Top 15 Players) and it is hard to imagine how many could be truly rational about the season outlook.
|Willie Cauley-Stein||SO||F||6.8 Pts, 6.1 Reb, 0.7 Ast|
|EJ Floreal||FR||G||0.7 Pts, 0.3 Reb, 0.0 Ast|
|Aaron Harrison||FR||G||13.7 Pts, 3.0 Reb, 1.9 Ast|
|Andrew Harrison||FR||G||10.9 Pts, 3.2 Reb, 4.0 Ast|
|Dominique Hawkins||FR||G||0.8 Pts, 0.7 Reb, 0.4 Ast|
|Jon Hood||SR||G||1.2 Pts, 0.3 Reb, 0.4 Ast|
|Dakari Johnson||FR||C||5.2 Pts, 3.9 Reb, 0.3 Ast|
|Marcus Lee||FR||F||2.4 Pts, 1.4 Reb, 0.1 Ast|
|Brian Long||JR||G||0.0 Pts, 0.0 Reb, 0.0 Ast|
|Sam Malone||JR||G||0.0 Pts, 0.0 Reb, 0.0 Ast|
|Jarrod Polson||SR||G||1.0 Pts, 0.6 Reb, 0.5 Ast|
|Alex Poythress||SO||F||5.9 Pts, 4.5 Reb, 0.4 Ast|
|Julius Randle||FR||F||15.0 Pts, 10.4 Reb, 1.4 Ast|
|Derek Willis||FR||F||1.1 Pts, 0.6 Reb, 0.0 Ast|
|James Young||FR||G||14.3 Pts, 4.3 Reb, 1.7 Ast|
I will link it at the end as well, but do yourself a favor and watch this YouTube video by UKCAT8FAN. There is no better video out there summing on this season.
The 40-0 Hype
Throughout his career, dating back to the early 2000s, John Calipari has said that before he retires he would love to coach a 40-0 team. With the class coming in and the guys staying this question would inevitably come up. At media days when Cal was asked about it, he said this:
"I've said it for eight to ten years. Before I retire, I would like to coach a team that goes 40-0"
He might as well have said something along the lines of "This team will go 40-0 or I will retire, give back our national title and all of Big Blue Nation will kill themselves." It would not have been any worse than the hype that was created by the media, which was perpetuated by fans of all programs.
People made shirts, websites, and some even got tattoos commemorating their future national championship.
Big Blue MADNESS
Kentucky has a tradition of allowing tents to camp out for the tickets to Big Blue Madness. This season was so anticipated that a record 755 tents were set up to buy the tickets... which sold out in less than 30 minutes.
755 tents outside memorial for BIG BLUE MADNESS tickets... We go hard. Even for a pre-season…— Michelle Grote (@MichelleGrote) October 5, 2013
Michigan State Game, #1 vs. #2
The game vs. the Spartans was a highly anticipated battle of #1 vs. #2 and what most considered a preview of a final four or even possible national title game. Kentucky would play ok, but show lapses and end up losing. We chalked it up to MSU being the more experience team, but really we just were not ready.
The haters around the nation rejoiced as 40-0 was no longer possible and the jokes came fast and furious at the 'Cats expense as well as all of BBN.
The Overtime/Ice Storm Debacle Against Baylor
Losing to the #2 team in the country on a neutral court was acceptable for the BBN, what would happen a few weeks later in Texas, was not. Kentucky men's and women's teams held a doubleheader with Baylor at "Jerry's World" in the AT&T stadium in Dallas.
The 'Cats were coming off a 5-game winning streak and expected to make it six that night. A crazy ice storm combined with the women's game going into what seemed like 10 overtimes created an odd atmosphere of less than 10,000 people to watch the #3 'Cats and #20 Bears.
Kentucky would seemingly have the game in hand after a Julius Randle dunk put them up by 9 points with less than 13 minutes left. For a team expected to compete for a national championship you would not expect an implosion... but it happened.
Kentucky would end up being out-hearted by Baylor and lose the game 67-62 leaving all of BBN in a stunned silence. Almost to a point where it felt surreal and we were all dreaming.
The 'Cats Lose The Will To Win And The Game In Chapel Hill
A week later the 'Cats would head to Chapel Hill to face the #18 Tar Heels in a game that BBN was certain would get us back on track and feeling good about our title chances once again. Alas, it was a good hope but Kentucky would lose 82-77, despite the Tar Heels missing 19 free throws and playing without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald.
The loss itself was not the frustrating part, it was the borderline "giving up" against Baylor and then losing to a lesser opponent because they simply wanted to win more than you did that was the most deflating.
"What we are right now is we're not a good basketball team," Calipari said. "And we're not a good team because our emotion is all based on our individual play instead of our team play. ... Our stuff is all based on 'Did I miss a free throw, did I get beat on the dribble, did I miss a shot, did I turn it over?'
"We've got to get through this. But we had chances to let go of the rope, and we didn't. We are what we are right now. We've got a long way to go."
Finally, A Reason To Cheer
Death, Taxes, and John Calipari owns Rick Pitino... there are some things you can set your watch to in this life, and those are three of them. The 18th ranked 'Cats welcomed the 6th ranked Cardinals into Rupp Arena in a game that was nearing must-win status for the fan-base.
Julius Randle would lead Kentucky to a halftime lead, scoring 17 points before missing essentially the entire second half with cramps. During that second half, UK would turn a 52-51 deficit into a 68-58 lead with four minutes left. The Harrison Twins lead the charge and Coach Cal came away with a very satisfying win for BBN.
SEC Frustrations Begin With A Ferocious Slam And A Fan
Fresh off beating the hated Cardinals and winning the first two SEC games the 'Cats went to Fayetteville to take on Arkansas. Kentucky had seemingly lost the game in regulation when they were down by three with under 10 seconds left. However, big shot Aaron Harrison nailed a three pointer with less than two seconds to go to force OT.
Kentucky would fall in overtime after failing to block out Michael Qualls on a missed shot. Qualls slammed home a put back off a missed shot with 0.2 seconds to go. To add insult to injury, an Arkansas fan came at Aaron Harrison after the game and nearly started something he would not have finished.
THE Low Point Of The Season
The Arkansas loss in Fayetteville dropped the 'Cats to 12-4 and only 2-1 to start SEC play. When you are expecting a chance at a National Title, this is not good. The 'Cats would go 9-3 over their next 12 SEC games, but truth be told it was three losses too many.
Kentucky would lose at LSU in a game they were absolutely dominated and Johnny O'Bryant dropped 30 points. They lost by 10 at home to Florida, and then a second consecutive loss to Arkansas, this time at Rupp Arena.
The scary part is that UK was a lucky break away from losing three consecutive games and 5 out of 7 if not for Julius Randle snatching an errant ball and putting it in for the OT win.
Following the loss to Arkansas loss, the 'Cats would travel to Columbia and thoroughly embarrass the program and give BBN a low-point.
It was the Wildcats (21-8, 11-5 Southeast Conference), who looked like the team in the league basement, missing 14 straight shots, shooting less than 27 percent from the field and watching Calipari walk out of the arena with his suit coat buttoned but his shirttail out.
While Kentucky would rally and nearly win, they did not and it was at that point the BBN had the realization that this just was not a good team and it was going to be a very disappointing season.
Pat Forde From The Peanut Gallery
Matt Jones of KSR told a story on his radio show of a scene he witnessed at the John Calipari press conference to announce his hire. Matt says he was no more than 10 feet away from Forde and a group of people when he said he could not believe UK would hire Calipari, that he was a cheater and that Pat was going to take him down.
You would have to be delusional to think that Forde does NOT have a bias against Coach Cal, and he had this bullet in his chamber for a long time and decided to fire it. He published an article titled "You made your bed John Calipari, now lie in it." It was likely ol Patty's proudest moment.
"It's Gonna Be A Great Story"
After the debacle in Columbia, Aaron Harrison was not afraid to show his confidence in his teammates by his Nostradamus like proclamation.
"We know what we can do, and it's gonna be a great story."
The tweak turned out to be much ado about nothing, as the entire crux of it was for Andrew Harrison to focus more on setting other people up than scoring.
The minor adjustment worked, and by definition it was a tweak, but the way the media ran wild with speculation you would have thought he was teaching them all to shoot with their off-hand.
It seemed to work as the 'Cats beat a very good LSU team by 20, a solid Georgia team by double digits and had a last second shot to beat #1 Florida for the SEC title. Had it not been for James Young slipping, I am 100% confident we would have too.
Big Blue Nation's exuberance for a team that seemed to be righting the ship took a major hit once the NCAA tournament brackets were released. The 'Cats were an 8-seed and had about as uphill of a battle as you could have.
In order to get to a Final Four, the 'Cats were looking at facing a solid Kansas State team, then #1 seed and undefeated 35-0 Wichita State, then their rival Louisville Cardinals, followed by either Duke or Michigan. To say it was daunting was putting it mildly.
THE Game Of The 2014 Season
I will preface this by saying the NCAA adamantly says they do not "set up" games for the tournament. Here was the downtrodden goliath Kentucky Wildcats who had early dreams of 40-0. They are matched up with media and fan darling Wichita State Shockers, who actually has a chance to go 40-0. If you believe that was not set up, I got some property to sell you.
The game was billed as the best of the round and not only did it meet expectations, it wildly exceeded them. The game only saw a lead of more than 7 points for a total of three minutes. It was a game of back and forth plays by each team. Much like a Rocky movie, it was haymaker after haymaker with nobody going to the canvas.
Wichita's Cleanthony Early even did his best Dwayne Wade impression by nearly willing the Shockers past the 'Cats by himself. Early would drop 31 points to go with 7 rebounds and a much higher draft stock. With 18:34 left in the game, Aaron Harrison hit a three-pointer to bring UK to a four point 40-36 deficit. From that point on, the lead was never more than FOUR points for either team the entire game.
The back and forth would continue until the waning moments of the game and it seemed Wichita State was a team of destiny. The Shockers took the lead and with less than two minutes to go it just felt like we had to score or we would lose. The shot clock was under five with Andrew Harrison drove and kicked to James Young for the biggest shot of the game and he drilled a contested three.
Kentucky would come down to a final defensive stand and they were in no way going to allow Cleanthony Early the ball, instead it was an errant shot by Fred Van Vleet and the 'Cats were celebrating what felt like a final four victory.
Coach Cal would echo that sentiment after the game.
"I've been doing this so long. I've been in wars," Calipari said later. "You all understand this was an Elite Eight game. The winner of this should have gone to the Final Four."
The Dagger To The Heart of Louisville... Again.
This would set up a rematch with the hated Cardinals and a team desperate for payback. Not just for earlier in the season, but for the 2012 Final Four game that cost UL fans a potential title.
Louisville played a great game and was in control for all but 65 seconds when UK lead. Unfortunately for the future DJ's of America, the only second you need to lead a game... well it belonged to the Big Blue.
Aaron Harrison hit a humongous three point shot with only 39 seconds left to secure the win. You recall that Harrison had said earlier that it was going to be a great story. The Louisville game was chapter two in a 4-chapter drama that was that great story.
"I told them before the game, you'll get punched in the mouth and you're going to taste blood," coach John Calipari said. "You can fight or you can brace yourself for the next shot. They fought."
Michigan, Your Heart Is Next
The Wolverines came into the elite 8 matchup against UK having dodged the bullet of having to beat Duke to get here. They were a very good team and were lead by a very good guard in Nik Stauskas. Stauskus absolutely dominated the first half and scored 20 points to keep UK from mounting any sort of lead.
In a game that played the way basketball should be played, the second half was played with few fouls and excellent fundamental basketball.
The game was tied 72-72 when his brother Andrew simply pitched Aaron the ball like a running back and let him do his thing. There was not a person in the building, at home, or on this planet that did not think Aaron was going to shoot it.
Even Michigan defender Caris LeVert knew he was going to shoot, in fact, the only thing LeVert could have done better defending the play would have been to block the shot.
"I've been around guys who make these kind of plays," Calipari said. "I've always said, 'You cannot be afraid to miss.' He's not afraid to miss. That's the whole thing about making those kind of plays. And if he does miss, he's going to shoot it again."
Aaron gathered himself, set, jumped, faded a bit, and let loose the dagger that gave Kentucky one of the most improbable final fours in UK history.
The Final Four Against The Badgers
The Wisconsin Badgers and The Kentucky Wildcats faced off for a chance to go to the National Title game vs. the UConn Huskies. The Badgers were a deadly efficient offensive team and they had the advantage of likely having the best player on the floor in seven footer Frank Kaminsky
The game seemed to follow the normal UK routine of constant back and forth lead changes and the play becoming elevated with each passing minute. Kentucky game planned to stop Frank Kaminsky and it worked, they held him to only 8 points and 5 rebounds in a mostly frustrating night for him.
Wisconsin was 19-20 from the free throw line that night, the only miss was the biggest. Kentucky fouled on a three point shot with just 16.4 seconds to go and the game tied. Traevon Jackson would rim out the first, before making the other two and giving Wisconsin a two point lead.
The huddle may as well have been Mic'd up because we all knew if anyone but Aaron Harrison was going to take that last shot he would have been tackled by a UK fan before the ball released his hands.
Of course, the now notorious Aaron Harrison took the ball on his usual left wing spot, and almost on cue the words from Jim Nantz came out...
"this is the point where he always hits it... OOOOH!"
The legend of Aaron Harrison was set in stone, no matter what he did for the rest of his life he was going to be endeared to the Big Blue Nation. He may be the only man in the world who would likely be acquitted of any crime he ever committed in the state.
"You can't be scared to miss, and you want to be that guy that wants to take the big shots," Aaron Harrison said.
James Young Posterizes UCONN
This was far and away the best thing about that National Title Game.
Unfortunately, as everyone knows, the 'Cats would go on to lose in the national title game to UCONN. Although, it was a weird feeling. Years past or even forward you would think losing to a very beatable team in the National title game would create a deep depression for BBN.
It was not that way this time, sure you were upset, but looking back on the season it was such a joy to watch those kids grow up and do something special.
The 2014 Wildcats will ALWAYS have a special place in the heart of Big Blue Nation. Indeed the man was spot on, Aaron Harrison had no idea what he was in for when he told us it was going to be a great story.
I will be wrapping up the Iconic Moments Series just before Midnight madness as an FYI. It is football time in Kentucky!