Kentucky Basketball: Highs and Lows of Wildcats' 2014 NCAA Tournament
After a roller coaster of a regular season, the 2013-14 Kentucky basketball team has finally found its groove in the postseason.
The Wildcats showed their complete game during their first two games of the NCAA tournament. In the second round game against Kansas State, Kentucky used stifling defense—for what seemed to be the first time all season—to move on. Kentucky held Kansas State to 23 percent from behind the arc and 35 percent from the field.
In their second game, the Wildcats played their most complete game of the year. Four players scored in double digits and all seven players who played serious minutes for Kentucky made a mark on the game. Kentucky also played its smartest game of the year, always looking for the smartest shot instead of forcing one for themselves.
This slideshow will take a look at the highs and lows Kentucky has experienced through its first two NCAA tournament games.
High: The New and Old Julius Randle
I know the headline might not make too much sense, but hear me out for a second. Julius Randle is doing the same old Julius Randle stuff like continually getting double doubles and attacking the rim. But, he's doing it a new way.
He's doing it with patience. He's getting his teammates involved, and for the first time all season, he's letting the game come to him.
Randle recorded double-doubles in Kentucky's first two tournament games, notching 19 points and 15 rebounds against Kansas State and an even more impressive stat line of 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists against Wichita State.
Unlike the regular season, when everyone who was watching a Kentucky game knew that if Randle touched the ball he would shoot it—no matter what it would take for him to get to the rim, usually resulting in a charge or a terrible shot—Randle has tried to make his first move. If it's not there, he looks for the open man and then attempts to get better position.
Randle's importance to this team the rest of the way can't go without saying. The three other remaining teams in the Midwest region all have a dominant big man, whether it's Montrezl Harrell from Louisville, Jarnell Stokes from Tennessee or Glenn Robinson III from Michigan, it will be up to Randle to keep his play at this standard.
High: Andrew Harrison's Recovery
After what appeared to be a gruesome injury in the waning moments against Kansas State, there was speculation if Andrew Harrison would be able to play against Wichita State with the hyperextended elbow.
Harrison did play against Wichita State. In fact, he played extremely well against Wichita State. Whether there is magic in the sleeve he wore on his arm or not, Harrison showed up against a vaunted defense and performed when his team needed him.
Harrison played 34 of the 40 possible minutes, only sitting due to foul trouble in the first half, and finished with 20 points and three assists. He used his size to get to the rim against a smaller defender in Fred VanVleet and shot 6-of-9 from the field and 7-of-9 from the free-throw line.
Harrison seemed to struggle all season with finding his own shot and getting everyone else on his team involved. However, against Wichita State, Harrison looked like the No. 1 point guard in the class of 2013. He used his size when needed and finished strong at the rim, not afraid of contact despite his injured elbow. Although he finished with only three assists, he always made the extra pass to keep the offense moving.
High: Kentucky Having Fun
Remember when Julius Randle hit the game-winning shot against LSU earlier this season, and for the first time, it looked like this team enjoyed each other? Andrew Harrison was the first person to tackle Randle to the ground before the rest of the team piled on.
Well, that ended quickly with losses to South Carolina and Arkansas shortly after. However, something clicked lately, and it doesn't looked forced this time.
After the final buzzer sounded against Wichita State, the players on the bench ran onto the court, celebrating as a team in front of their bench, with players hugging each other. It was the first time it looked like they were genuinely happy for their teammates.
Arguably the biggest dilemma with John Calipari-coached teams in the one-and-done era is if players can put their egos aside to come together as a team and thrive on that. This year, it looked like time would run out on Kentucky before this would happen.
Besides the celebrating, you can see the team trusting each other on the court. Each player is taking advantage of their teammates' strengths, whether it's the shooting of James Young and Aaron Harrison or attacking the rim like Alex Poythress and Julius Randle can do.
Let's be honest. There hasn't been a low for Kentucky in the 2014 NCAA tournament just yet. It has won its first two games, including upsetting previously unbeaten Wichita State.
They won using both offense and defense, and they've avoided a serious injury unlike Iowa State.
Now, this can change within 24 hours, but for the meantime, Big Blue Nation can celebrate looking like a team that is a serious contender for yet another Final Four under head coach John Calipari.