Mark Story: In an NCAA tournament weekend where freshmen stars flopped, Kentucky's soared

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 24, 2014 

The 2013-14 college basketball season might have started off as "The Year of the Freshman," but the narrative that was emerging for the 2014 NCAA was "The Flop of the Freshman."

Duke's Jabari Parker slogged through a 4-of-14 shooting game in the Blue Devils' shocking first round loss to14-seed Mercer. The freshman's defensive performance in the game was worse than his shooting.

Syracuse star frosh point guard Tyler Ennis missed all five of his three-point attempts and shot 7-of-21 overall in the Orange's 55-53 defeat to Cinderella Dayton.

Kansas standout Andrew Wiggins did a pretty fair imitation of the Invisible Man in the Jayhawks round of 32 defeat to 10-seed Stanford. The freshman that many expect to be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft hit 1-of-6 shots, turned the ball over four times and finished with four points.

All it was going to take for first-year failure to become the dominant story line of this year's Big Dance was for Kentucky — with its starting lineup of five freshman McDonald's All-Americans — to lay an egg Sunday against the grizzled veterans of undefeated Wichita State.

Instead, the UK frosh were so good in Kentucky's scintillating 78-76 shocking of the Shockers, it made you catch your breath.

Guards and twin brothers Aaron and Andrew Harrison used their height (6-foot-6) and strength to overpower the smaller Wichita State guards for driving buckets in the lane. When fouled, the duo cashed their foul shots (10-of-13 combined). They finished with 39 points between them.

Julius Randle had only 13 points, but he might have played his best game as a Kentucky player. Randle was patient, trusted his teammates and did not force things. His final line — 13 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists versus one turnover — was stellar (That spinning drive where he finished at the rim with his right hand, the southpaw's off hand, was an oh my goodness moment).

Meanwhile, UK freshman swingman James Young may have hit the three biggest shots of UK's win. His three-pointer with 10.8 seconds left in the first half allowed Kentucky to cut a nine-point WSU lead to six at halftime, an important psychological boost going into the second half.

As the tension mounted late in the game, a Young field goal with 2:49 left put UK ahead 70-69. After Cleanthony Early's jumper gave Wichita State a 71-70 lead, Young responded with a cold-blooded three-pointer with 1:37 left.

Kentucky never trailed again.

UK freshman center Dakari Johnson had only three points and two rebounds, but John Calipari said a play in which Johnson fought for the rebound of a missed Aaron Harrison free throw — causing it to go out of bounds off Wichita State — with 4:11 left in the game and UK down four may have been the game's pivotal play. With the resulting possession, Andrew Harrison got fouled and drained two free throws to pull Kentucky within two.

After the game, a reporter tried to ask Randle why he had played so well under tournament pressure when so many of his peers at other schools had struggled.

Calipari interjected and said "I would like all the other freshmen (on the dais) to answer the same question."

Of playing in the NCAA Tournament, Randle said "I don't really look at it as pressure. I know that I have great teammates and they have my back out there."

Moonlighting as news conference moderator, Calipari then directed the same question to Andrew Harrison.

"It makes it easier when some of your brothers and stuff (are) going through some of the same things that you are going through," Harrison said.

Having watched Kentucky lose 10 games, including clunkers like a home defeat to mediocre Arkansas and a road loss to horrid South Carolina, I would have never believed UK was capable of performing at the level it reached Sunday against (an outstanding) Wichita State.

Whatever you think of Calipari's reliance on the one-and-done model to sculpt Kentucky's program, you have to give it to the coach. Even after a rocky season, his star freshmen — unlike those at Duke, Kansas and Syracuse — stepped up when the lights got bright.

Said Calipari: "I didn't do as good a job in defining roles (earlier in the season). That's on me, not these young people. But I'm just proud. I was whistling and skipping in the hallway."

Now, on to the Louisville Cardinals.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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