The biggest surprise of the 2014 NCAA tournament for Kentucky isn't the fact the Wildcats are one of 16 teams left. It's not the fact they took out an undefeated No. 1 seed in Wichita State.
The biggest surprise for Kentucky in the 2014 NCAA tournament is the fact the nation is finally seeing the talent play up to their potential as a team. We've seen it from an individual level, with each of the McDonald's All-Americans having standout performances, but the nation has yet to see Kentucky play as Kentucky.
There was no better example of that than the Wichita State game. Four players, all freshmen, scored at least 13 points. More importantly, Kentucky shot 54 percent from the field. That number was something unheard of all season for the Wildcats.
How far will Kentucky go this season?
The biggest contributor to Kentucky's high field-goal percentage was freshman Julius Randle playing the most intelligent game of the season to date. Randle never forced a shot, even through the first half when he wasn't getting many touches and had a minimal scoring effort on the game. Instead, he looked to get his teammates involved, reading the defense and kicking the ball to an open player. While Randle was held in check the first half, his willingness to pass and his teammates scoring opened up the game for him after halftime. He finished the game with an impressive stat line of 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
Following the patience of Randle was the willingness of his fellow freshmen to not settle for a tough shot against Wichita State's vaunted defense. Andrew Harrison used his size to attack the basket, but always did it under control. He never tried to force the ball into the paint against a smaller Fred VanVleet, despite finishing with six turnovers. Most of those came during a stretch in the first half where Harrison struggled bringing the ball up the court.
His brother Aaron Harrison and James Young, players who entered the season with the reputation of being knock-down shooters, found their strokes that avoided them all season. Harrison went 4-of-7 from the three-point line, while Young went 3-of-5. Both players hit big shots, Harrison with a banked-in three as the shot clock expired, and then Young buried an open shot with less than two minutes remaining. Both players were always moving on the offensive side of the ball and not just standing in one spot, hoping a teammate would find them. Instead they worked to get open and were able to capitalize off of it by being able to shoot with space and not contested.
Against Wichita State, Kentucky competed for all 40 minutes—something that hasn't been said all season. There were plenty of times when the Wildcats could have folded against Wichita State, but someone always seemed to step up and make a play instead. At the end of the first half, Wichita State pushed the lead up to nine points and could have gone into halftime with that lead. However, Young hit one of his threes with 14 seconds to go to give Kentucky momentum going into the locker room.
However, the most obvious showing of Kentucky coming together as a team was the way it celebrated after the buzzer went off. The Wildcats began to jump into each other's arms celebrating as a team and with an emotion that hasn't been seen all year. Nothing looked forced between the players: no forcing to clap after a made basket, slapping the floor for defense, worrying about huddling up. This looked like a team. A team that can make a run to the Final Four now.
A team that the nation thought we'd see all year.