Kentucky Basketball: After Uneven Season, Wildcats Peaking Not a Second Too Soon

Matt KingFeatured ColumnistMarch 30, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 30:  Aaron Harrison #2 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the game winning shot late against Caris LeVert #23 of the Michigan Wolverines during the midwest regional final of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 30, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Kentucky Wildcats defeated the Michigan Wolverines 75 to 72.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The team that lived.

Kentucky should be dead by now. It really should. We must have buried the Wildcats half a dozen times this season.

We buried them after they lost to UNC, proving that they couldn't beat a ranked opponent.

We buried them after they lost to LSU, proving that they didn't have what it took to win on the road in SEC play. 

We buried them after the lost to Arkansas again and then followed it up by losing to a 10-18 South Carolina team two days later.

We buried them after they got blown out at Florida by 19 in a game where the final score somehow was closer than it seemed.

Then after it looked like they might finally be righting the ship with a strong SEC tournament, we buried them again after they botched a final play to lose to Florida a third time in the championship.

They were so talented, but for some reason they never came together as a unit. They never quite realized their potential. There was never that moment where they clicked, where everything made sense and they started playing up to their billing.

One word would sum up the season: frustrating. And 40-0 seemed like forever ago.

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 16:  Scottie Wilbekin #5 of the Florida Gators fouls James Young #1 of the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half during the Championship game of the 2014 Men's SEC Basketball Tournament at Georgia Dome on March 16, 2014 in Atlanta, Geor
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Then the tournament happened. Or, I should say, Wichita State happened, because the Kansas State game didn't instill a lot of confidence in anyone. But the three games that followed: Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan...well that's a whole new season in just three games.

Three games. This team grew up in a hurry. It went from "almost there" in the SEC tournament to "totally there" in less time than John Calipari can say "most overanalyzed team in history."

And the crazy part is, there isn't just one thing to point to and go, "Yep, that was it. That was the turning point." Because Kentucky has needed a Rube Goldberg of events to fall into place at the exact same time to get a result like this.

All of a sudden, the Harrison twins went from guys who disappeared during games to the players who had the confidence and poise to take and make the biggest shots on the team. They watched closely as their draft status plummeted, then when they stopped looking and just started playing, they may have just played their way into a one-and-done situation.

Julius Randle put his rough SEC tournament behind him and has returned to his dominant ways, going for a double-double in every game of March Madness. The big man is smiling and having fun, and it's showing in his play. That motor that Cal kept raving about is on full display.

Dakari Johnson went from a nice complementary piece on the team to a crucial part of the plan. His decision-making has improved, and dumping the ball to him in the post is turning into some of the most dependable points the Wildcats can get.

David J. Phillip

And of course, Kentucky is finally getting something from the bench, with Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee (Marcus Lee!) coming up big in spots when the team needed some unexpected help, especially with Willie Cauley-Stein being absent with an injury for most of the big three games.

But maybe more than anything, it's been that this team just refused to die.

It had so many chances to, and Kentucky fans and haters alike were more than willing to write the Wildcats off. But they just would not go quietly into the night. And in doing so over and over in the games when it matters the most, they have found a strength that they never knew they had. By refusing to die, they have been given new life.

That's the real remarkable part: that it has come so late in the season. Because Calipari recruits such great talent and deals with such tremendous turnover, his young teams always have adjustment periods of learning to play together and improving as players. It's a gradual process. Sometimes it happens sooner, like with the 2012 title team. And sometimes it happens later, like the 2011 Final Four team that started SEC play 7-6 before finally coming together.

But with this Kentucky team, there was no clear gradual improvement or promise of cohesion. It was up and down, seemingly without reason. What were the odds this team that starts five freshmen would all of a sudden put it all together just as it had to play three straight Final Four-worthy teams in the NCAA tournament?

And so now the Wildcats head to the Final Four, very much alive. They have clicked, and they are dangerous.

They are not about to die now because, really, they just got started. Where's the fun in that?