At last, we have reached the end. Just as the NCAA Tournament of 2014 seemed to go on forever with drama that only escalated with every single contest, we have traveled the entire gamut of Kentucky’s season — from the promise of the preseason, to the difficulties of the non-conference season, past the glory of once again defeating the Louisville Cardinals when Kentucky seemed vulnerable.
We then relived the agony and frustration of the SEC season, a ride which seemed to get more and more bumpy as the calendar flew by. The culmination, a brutal loss to Florida in Gainesville, left Wildcats fans empty and in the winter. Many, in fact, achieved apathy, a rare occurrence in Kentucky during the reign of John Calipari.
But the SEC Tournament and subsequent NCAA Tournament would change all that. In our penultimate examination, we reached the Elite Eight of the 2014 NCAA Tournament via a second defeat of detested Louisville, sending them back to the River City as the ex-NCAA Tournament champions, and to their hoisting of whatever memorabilia in the rafters of the KFC-Yum Center. Since it is so relatively bereft of NCAA Tournament championships, raising banners for Sweet Sixteens would seem to be necessary to reduce the echo, I suppose. But I digress…
The Louisville game was a kind of catharsis for Kentucky fans, and for the team. Kentucky, although many of us tend to forget it, was apparently in significant trouble against Louisville late in the game, but seemed to find another gear and blew by the Cardinals at the end. End-game heroics had become a kind of calling card for the Wildcats, and it was a trend that would continue all the way to the end.
Michigan Wolverines (#2 Seed)
Michigan was the most efficient offensive basketball team in the NCAA in 2013-14. They had an adjusted offensive rating for the season of 124.1, fueled by their outstanding 40.2% average 3-point percentage for the season, fourth best in the NCAA. Michigan had terrific 3-point shooting from Nik Stauskas, Chris LeVert, Glenn Robinson III, Derrick Walton, and Zak Irvin. Of those five, only Robinson was shooting under 40% from the arc.
But the Wolverines were without their big center Mitch McGary, who had back problems and had to undergo season-ending surgery. The loss of McGary made Michigan a very small team, and they were coming up against the biggest team remaining in the tournament, the Kentucky Wildcats. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they had lost Willie Cauley-Stein to an ankle injury in the Louisville game.
The absence of WCS would show up early with the early appearance of a Wildcat who had played but sparingly during the season — Marcus Lee. Lee came in for Julius Randle at the 15:25 mark in the first half, and promptly made his presence felt with back-to-back offensive rebounds and dunks in a span of one minute. Three minutes later, he would do it yet again to bring Kentucky within a basket with 12 minutes left in the half.
But as with so many games that the Wildcats had played this season, they started the contest behind, and with five minutes remaining in the first half, Michigan had pushed out to a 10-point lead. Kentucky charged back on five straight points from James Young; a 3-pointer on an Andrew Harrison assist, and on the next possession a nice jumper in the lane to bring Kentucky back within four.
On the ensuing Michigan possession, Lee would block a Glenn Robinson III shot, and at the offensive end, flush another put-back dunk off a missed Julius Randle layup attempt. Lee’s length and astonishing athleticism was giving Michigan fits. The Wildcats would go on to fight back within one at the break.
The second half of the game was reminiscent of the Wichita State Shockers game in the respect that it was an offensive tour-de-force by both teams. The game was fought out in a very narrow band, but unlike other recent games, Kentucky was ahead more often than behind, although never by enough to really matter. This game, it turns out, would simply come down to who had the last clean look at the basket before time ran out.
History will record that it was Kentucky who got that shot with 4.3 seconds left, and it was Aaron Harrison, on a hand-off from his brother Andrew, who took and made it. It was a challenged jumper from the left center of the 3-point line with the long 6‘6" Chris LeVert challenging it perfectly. It was a classic testosterone moment, where Aaron faked a drive, then stepped back with a "You can’t stop this!" look and snapped off a lightning-quick three right over LeVert’s outstretched fingertips. It was a fantastic individual play by a confident player at exactly the right moment, and it ended Michigan’s NCAA Tournament run.
With 2.3 seconds left, Michigan called a timeout, and Nik Stauskas’ desperation heave would go begging from half-court. Kentucky had done the absolutely improbable — made it to the Final Four from the #8 seed, and going through the 1, 3 and 4 seeds in the process. In the game against Michigan, Kentucky had its highest offensive efficiency of the season against a quality team — 131.7 points per 100 possessions.
The Big Blue Nation was, in a word, stupefied. Yes, some had held on to hope that had been realized, but many had simply recalibrated their expectations. After defeating Louisville, most Kentucky fans would’ve accepted a loss to Michigan with aplomb, especially considering the loss of one of their most important players. But that would not be necessary thanks to the dagger by Aaron Harrison.
When the dust had settled, Kentucky was set to face the Wisconsin Badgers in the Final Four, the second-best offensive team remaining the the NCAA Tournament, and the #2 seed in the West Region.
Wisconsin Badgers (#2 Seed)
For the second time in the short Calipari era, Kentucky had reached an unexpected Final Four. The first time it happened in 2011, Kentucky had to get past an Ohio State team that was an offensive juggernaut. In 2014, Kentucky had somehow defeated not one, but two offensively-dominant teams in Wichita State and Michigan, and now stood toe-to-to with yet another — Wisconsin
The Badgers had reached the Final Four by virtue of an amazing performance against the arguably superior Arizona Wildcats, but they won by only one point. It was Bo Ryan’s first Final Four as Wisconsin coach, and he had a team dominated by juniors and seniors, guys that had been underrated in the early season and had really gelled in the crucible of the tough Big Ten.
In seemingly trademark style, Kentucky fell behind early in the first half, and for over 15 minutes of the period the Badgers held at least a 3-point lead. Wisconsin pushed it out to as large as nine, but finishing the first half up only four points over Kentucky. The Wildcats were struggling to shoot the ball from inside and out, and Andrew Harrison missed the last 6 minutes of the half with fouls. Julius Randle also suffered from cramps, limiting his effectiveness.
The second half, though, things would change, although not immediately. Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker would block Julius Randle’s first shot, then make a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession taking the lead out to six and prompting a quick Calipari 20-second timeout. It was well done, and the Wildcats came back out with their attitudes properly adjusted.
Kentucky would promptly go on a 15-0 run led by Alex Poythress, James young and Marcus Lee with dominant inside play, rebounding and stick-backs. Wisconsin would respond at the 14:36 mark and go on a 10-2 run of their own to tie the basketball game, and take the lead at 56-55 with 12 minutes left, a lead they would not surrender until very late in the contest.
With 5:40 left, the Wildcats made their move. First, it was a 3-point play the old-fashioned way by Julius Randle. Then it was Alex Poythress in the lane for a spectacular 2-handed dunk over Dekker. Randle followed that up with two free throws to tie the game, and shortly thereafter, Andrew Harrison found Alex Poythress by the rim for a layup to give the Wildcats the lead for the first time since the 12:05 minute mark. But that was just the appetizer.
Frank Kaminsky and Traevon Jackson would combine on a layup and a couple of free throws to return Wisconsin to the lead with 16 seconds remaining on the clock. It was at that point that once again, Aaron Harrison was possessed of a spirit of the heroes of Kentucky basketball. The need was dire, the end was near, but Aaron once again found himself in the clenched fist of Destiny.
The ball penetrated inside, was kicked to Andrew in the corner, and then Andrew passed to his brother outside the arc at the 45% left wing. Aaron rose up like Achilles of myth and drilled the three over a near-perfect challenge by the Wisconsin defender that sent Wisconsin to the showers for the final time in their splendid season, just as he did to Michigan. Jackson’s desperate final shot would clank off the rim, and for the second time in five season under John Calipari, Kentucky would play in the last game of the NCAA season.
Incredibly, Aaron Harrison had reprised his game-winner against Michigan almost precisely, right down to the side of the floor and the excellent challenge. It was the kind of déjà vu rarely seen in an NCAA Tournament, and all the more memorable for it.
Connecticut Huskies (#7 Seed)The
After the cheers of the victory over Wisconsin had died away, the Big Blue Nation found itself in a place it had not imagined since the very early days of the season. Somewhere between the loss to North Carolina in Chapel Hill and the loss to Arkansas in Rupp Arena, faith in this team had been lost, and never fully recovered. Even now, on the cusp of their ninth NCAA Tournament championship, Kentucky fans were just surprised and happy to be here.
They had expected this team to perhaps get to the Sweet Sixteen, maybe even the Elite Eight if somebody pulled an upset. Yet here, before them, stood a team that four weeks before had been impossibly ordinary, even underachieving. Somehow, in the space of only 30 days or so, they had transformed themselves into a championship team who had defeated four top-4 seeds to reach the NCAA Tournament finals, and have a chance to bring home yet another NCAA Tournament championship, its second in three seasons.
Alas, it was not to be.
Of all the games Kentucky played in the last three weeks of the season, the UConn game was by far the least competitive. UConn would take the lead with over 15 minutes to go in the first half and would never relinquish it. The bulge would grow to as large as 15 points in the latter half of the first stanza, and although Kentucky clawed their way back to within 1 point in the early second half, they could never retake the lead.
Kentucky’s normal advantage on the backboard was somehow negated by the Huskies, and although neither team was efficient offensively, Connecticut was just enough better to win. There was relatively little drama in the game other than Kentucky’s ultimately futile effort to catch up to Connecticut. As the game ground on it became clearer and clearer that Destiny had abandoned the Wildcats, or at least was unwilling to drag them any further. Kentucky was simply unable to muster the kind of rise-to-the-occasion effort that had put them here.
The Wildcats had run out of magic pixie dust. Aaron Harrison was 1-5, and turnovers returned to plague the Wildcats again in a grinding, low possession, hard-on-the-eyes affair that saw Kentucky return to mid-season form instead of elevating their game. They bowed to the Huskies 60-54, and the impossible dream remained just out of reach for a squad that, perhaps, was unworthy of it considering their regular season. Whether Connecticut was more worthy is a question that will forever remain academic — they were on this day, and that’s all that matters.
So we reach the end of the 2013-14 season, and with this final word put "finis" to a season that will long be remembered for its incredible ups and downs, or rather, downs and ups. This will not be remembered as one of the Wildcats greatest seasons, nor reviled as one of its most disappointing. 2013-14 was not really unique in any meaningful way, as we had seen something very similar only three seasons before.
Even so, it was a season the Big Blue Nation can be proud of. Kentucky took every moment of the regular season to find themselves, but in the end, they did, and that’s what really matters most. Just as Aaron Harrison predicted, this was a great story, filled with drama, glory and pathos. It was a tale fit for the most storied basketball program in America.
Kentucky fans learned a lot about themselves in this season. After many believed the 2011-12 team would win a national title, and they did, picking that out seemed easy. Many in the Big Blue Nation believed that 2013-14 would win it all at the beginning of the season, but the kind of dominant team that races past all comers never emerged from this group. We learned that good on paper is one thing, good on the court is another.
This riches to rags to riches story is possibly the most interesting in Kentucky history for its spectacular failures and spectacular success. It is also interesting in that there has quite possibly never been a #8 seed in the NCAA Tournament with two first-round draft picks on it.
But perhaps the most memorable thing about this team is that a significant portion of the Big Blue Nation had given up on them after the Florida debacle, and they can be forgiven for doing so. The end of last season was one of the most underachieving and disappointing things we have seen at Kentucky in a while. Even the much-reviled 2012-13 team had better moments in the second half of the regular season than this team did. Yet like the Phoenix of legend, they rose from their own ashes to form an amazing thread in the colorful tapestry that is Kentucky basketball.
In closing, it’s worthwhile to point out that it is just possible that the seeds of an NCAA Tournament championship were planted by the 2013-14 team in that second-place finish. The year of struggles lowered the stock of several Kentucky players as NBA Draft picks, prompting their return to Kentucky this season to form the nucleus of what may be the most powerful team in Kentucky basketball history. That team begins writing its story starting today with their first August exhibition against the Puerto Rican national second team. As we close the curtain on last season today, it is perfectly fitting that the new season should unofficially born on that same day.
Once more unto the breach! Go, 'Cats!