In the round of 32, Kentucky fought Wichita State in what many believed was the best game of the year. In the Sweet 16, the Wildcats' win over in-state rival Louisville topped that.
Against Michigan for a spot in the Final Four, the young 'Cats did it again.
Aaron Harrison hit four three-pointers in the final eight minutes and change, including the game-winner with under three seconds remaining to propel Kentucky to a thrilling 75-72 win in the last Elite Eight game of the weekend.
As Yahoo Sports' Brad Evans notes, Kentucky coach John Calipari deserves major credit for the wild run:
Potential realized. No matter if you love or hate Calipari have to tip your cap to the coaching job he's done in the postseason. Remarkable.— Brad Evans (@YahooNoise) March 30, 2014
ESPN Stats & Info gives a historical look at just how young the newest Final Four participant really is:
Kentucky is the first team to start 5 freshmen in an Elite 8 win since Michigan's "Fab 5" in 1992.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 30, 2014
Even Calipari seemed somewhat bewildered by the fact during the post-game press conference, via CBS Sports' Gregg Doyel:
Calipari can't even believe it: "We played six fresh-- no we played seven freshmen today. Didn't we? We played seven freshmen in that game."— Gregg Doyel (@GreggDoyelCBS) March 30, 2014
The most hyped of all the freshmen, Julius Randle, finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds, winning the Most Outstanding Player award for the Midwest region, per Rivals' Brett Dawson:
Julius Randle Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Regional. Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert, Aaron Harrison and (yep_ Marcus Lee on all-region— Brett Dawson (@BDawsonRivals) March 30, 2014
Kentucky dominated the interior for much of the game, grabbing 63 percent of its misses, but as Michigan fought back with Nik Stauskas (24 points) and its own prowess on the offensive glass, Harrison put the Wildcats on his back to book a spot in the national semifinals against Wisconsin.
Stauskas gave due respect to the Wildcats afterwards, via Rush the Court's Midwest region Twitter feed:
"I think we did a good job of fighting all game. Kentucky is a great team and deserves to go to the Final Four." - Nik Stauskas. #NCAAIndy— RTC Midwest Region (@RTCMWRegion) March 30, 2014
Heading into the half, each team had 37 points but got there in very different ways.
For Michigan, it was all about the Big Ten Player of the Year. The young 'Cats couldn't stop Stauskas in the first half, as he poured in 18 points on just seven shots. He was locked in from the outside, he weaved his way to the rim and he got to the foul line.
With 5:12 remaining in the first half, a 5-0 run by Stauskas put the Wolverines ahead by 10. KyForward.com's James Pennington noted Kentucky should probably feel lucky the dynamic Canadian was missing at all:
Nik Stauskas is 5 of 6 and has 15 points. At this rate, Kentucky should be thankful Stauskas missed the one.— James Pennington (@pennington_jl) March 30, 2014
But the 'Cats, behind one of the least likely players on the roster, quickly climbed back into the contest. With Willie Cauley-Stein sidelined, Marcus Lee tallied 10 first-half points, with an unbelievable eight of those coming off put-back dunks.
Rivals' Brett Dawson summed up just how unlikely Lee's contribution was:
Marcus Lee made four shots in SEC play this season. He has four dunks tonight.— Brett Dawson (@BDawsonRivals) March 30, 2014
The pair of powerhouses continued to trade buckets in the second half, with Kentucky controlling the offensive glass and interior, and Michigan feeding in transition and off its perimeter players.
That compelling contrast in style caused Andy Glockner to joke:
Michigan's shooting 107% to offset UK getting to rebound until it's bored at the other end. Fun.— Andy Glockner (@AndyGlockner) March 30, 2014
Coincidentally enough, though, both teams somewhat adopted each other's styles down the stretch. Aaron and Andrew Harrison, who had struggled all game, each hit jumpers as part of an 11-0 Kentucky run, and Jordan Morgan responded with a clutch three-point play off an offensive rebound and a dunk.
As ESPN Stats & Info noted, Michigan was giving the Wildcats a bit of their own medicine on offense:
Michigan 21 second-chance points, most vs Kentucky this season— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 30, 2014
Aaron Harrison punched right back with another three—his third of the game—to put the Wildcats up by five with two minutes remaining, only for Glenn Robinson III to match him from the corner pocket.
At this point, ESPN's Brett Edgerton summed up the back-and-forth contest best:
Not sure how this game could get any better, but we might be about to find out. #MICHvsUK— Brett Edgerton (@EditorEdge) March 30, 2014
And it would get better.
With the Wolverines down by two in the final minute, they collected three offensive rebounds on the same sequence before Morgan finally got the tip-in to tie things up with 27 seconds left on the clock.
But Harrison came through once again in the clutch, nailing an off-balance three-pointer over good defense from Caris LeVert to send the Wolverines packing.
Cal on Aaron Harrison: "He's not afraid to miss."— Brett Dawson (@BDawsonRivals) March 31, 2014
If this each-game-is-better-than-the-last trend continues for Kentucky, then we may be in line for an all-time instant classic when the Wildcats and Badgers face off in Arlington on Saturday.
Even if that contest turns into a dud (which is unlikely), this tournament has already supplied enough excitement to keep us satisfied well into 2015.