From Boys to Men: Poised Kentucky Peaking as Michigan Showdown Looms

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From Boys to Men: Poised Kentucky Peaking as Michigan Showdown Looms
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INDIANAPOLIS — As four of Kentucky's freshmen were excused from the podium late Friday night, coach John Calipari turned around and instructed them to head straight back to the locker room and not to talk to any media.

Much earlier in the day, Calipari told his assistants that in the opening minutes against Louisville's pressure defense, his guys would "pee down their leg." 

"Let's just be positive and keep them going," Calipari said.

After what has been one of the most exhausting years of his coaching life and a draining matchup that played out against hated rival Louisville—one that saw his 'Cats trail 18-5—it might just be time for Calipari to take off the training wheels as his team prepares to play Michigan in the Elite Eight.

David J. Phillip

The hand-holding can subside now, Cal.

Because those were not babies out there in the final minutes of Kentucky's come-from-behind Sweet 16 win over Louisville or down the stretch against Wichita State. That was some grown-man stuff there.

"I told them before the (Louisville) game, you'll get punched in the mouth and you're going to taste blood, Calipari said. "You're going to fight or brace yourself for the next shot. They fought. They never stopped playing."

The Wildcats are rewriting the script they were dealt back in November and one that was destined for the trash in February.

Three weeks ago, the Wildcats were finishing the regular season with three losses in their final four games.

"I never give up on a team or a player, ever," Calipari said Friday night.

That's believable, maybe.

But the rest of us did. Because the record—24-10 entering the NCAA tournament—said something just wasn't right with this group that started the year ranked No. 1.

Calipari put 40-0 on their plates—and he says nothing by accident—but what we saw play out was a group that seemed burdened by the expectations.

"I kept telling all you guys, it was the fun thing to do to attack these kids individually. 'They're no good. They can't play. They're this. They're that.' It's one thing after another," Calipari said. "They took it on and they pushed it aside, and they kept trying to get better."

That's great, but that's a narrative that Calipari is weaving on the fly.

Don't be fooled into thinking it was all just some master plan, because Calipari has had to poke and prod and then scrap it all and start over again to get what he wanted out of this team. He admitted earlier this week that he's been having his team practice hours longer than he usually does this time of year.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

"A lot of the issues we had come back to me," Calipari said. "The stuff we tweaked before the tournament, I should have done two months before." 

Kentucky's players maintain that they kept the faith all along, but Aaron Harrison temporarily forgot the company line on Saturday when he was asked whether panic ever set in. 

"I mean we were pretty worried," he said. "But once coach fixed a few things and Andrew (Harrison) started leading us, the season was just long enough that we got it together."

The Wildcats regained our attention with that win over Wichita State last week, but that seemed like an aberration in the first eight minutes against Louisville when they were fumbling their way to a big deficit.

Even when that lead was chewed up by the talent of Kentucky, would anyone have bet against the Cardinals down the stretch? In a close game—and this one had one tie and three lead changes in the final minutes—would anyone have given the advantage to the Wildcats and not the seniors on the other side coming off a national title? 

Instead, Louisville was the team making panic plays down the stretch on Friday, while the Wildcats executed beautifully. Freshman Julius Randle made the game-deciding play, slashing into the lane and calmly kicking the ball out to freshman Aaron Harrison for the final, go-ahead three. 

Randle admitted on Saturday that weeks ago he probably wouldn't have made that pass. Not that he was playing selfishly, but the Wildcats lacked that trust and they realized it.

"Just the chemistry," Aaron Harrison said of what was off. "It wasn't about the losses."

That's the greatest challenge of starting five freshmen. It's not that they aren't developed physically—because these dudes look like Greek Godsit's realizing that the guy next to you is just as capable.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Calipari's grand plan was for all those freshmen to overwhelm the country with their talent, and now that they trust each other, that's looking possible now. 

Take Friday night, for instance. Kentucky got 15 points each out of Randle, Aaron Harrison and Dakari Johnson, who had to play extended minutes because backup Willie Cauley-Stein left with an ankle injury. Point guard Andrew Harrison made the balanced scoring possible, adding 14 points himself along with seven assists and only two turnovers.

"They're maturing right before our eyes," Calipari said. 

As Andrew Harrison rolled away from the locker room on a golf cart to the postgame press conference, he looked at his phone and blurted out, "Oh my God," with a big smile on his face. 

"My mom just sent me a long, long message telling me how proud of me she was, and it just made me really happy," he said. 

From Calipari's fist pumps to the postgame smile-fest, the 'Cats didn't win any titles Friday, but it sure felt like it. 

This ending has yet to be written, as Michigan stands in the way of the storybook run of five freshmen coming together to reach the Final Four.

But after knocking off the veterans from Wichita and Louisville, the statement has been made: From boys to men, the Kentucky Wildcats can handle March. Hand-holding no longer needed.

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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