John Clay: From where Kentucky was to where it is a 'great story' indeed

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 29, 2014 

INDIANAPOLIS — On March 1, Aaron Harrison sat at a table in a cramped room of a Columbia, S.C., basketball arena on the lowest day of Kentucky's season and sounded like a freshman who was too young to know any better.

"We know what we can do," said Harrison after UK lost to the woeful Gamecocks. "It's going to be a great story."

Now, on March 30, Kentucky has a chance to turn a great story into an incredible one.

"Yes," Harrison said Saturday when, in an interview room at Lucas Oil Stadium, he was reminded of that Columbia quote, "this is what I was talking about."

If the Cats can beat Big Ten regular-season champion Michigan in the Midwest Region finals today at 5:05 p.m., the unlikely No. 8 seed will advance to next weekend's Final Four in Arlington, Texas.

Sunday's task won't be easy. John Beilein's Wolverines are the region's No. 2 seed and the tournament's runner-up a season ago.

They proved to be the best team this season in a conference that boasted three Elite Eight teams, more than any other league.

Michigan has four perimeter players who shoot better than 40 percent from three-point range, an underrated post player in Jordan Morgan and one of the game's more respected tactical coaches in the 61-year-old Beilein.

Meanwhile, Kentucky could be without sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein, who suffered a left ankle injury in Friday night's 74-69 semifinal win over archrival Louisville.

UK Coach John Calipari said Saturday that Cauley-Stein is still in a boot and is doubtful for Sunday's game, though the coach admitted the Kansas native insists he will try to play Sunday.

"Hopefully he's able to limp his way in there and give us a few minutes," Calipari said, "but maybe he can't."

If Cauley-Stein can't, it's not as if this Kentucky team is a stranger to adversity.

We're not talking physical adversity as much as mental, thanks to a mountain of excessive expectations and a growth process that turned out to be slower than anyone predicted or wanted.

"We grew up," said Calipari when asked what has been the biggest difference in his team this post-season after a 22-9 regular season.

The rock-bottom 72-67 loss at South Carolina was followed by a less-than-impressive home win over Alabama and a 19-point drubbing on the road at conference champ Florida.

And yet, somehow, Calipari coaxed his team into ripping off the rearview mirror and focusing instead on the road ahead.

"I'm just happy we're playing better now," Calipari said Saturday. "Because I'm telling you, we almost ran out of runway when we landed the plane. As a matter of fact, the nose of the plane was in the grass. But we got down. That's all we were trying to do is land the plane."

That's Cal-speak for getting his team to jell. And if the Kentucky coach can sometimes wear on you a bit with his "tweaks" and talking points, it is the power of his personality and persistence that usually rules the day.

"He's always positive to me," UK's James Young said in describing his coach in a response to a question Saturday.

"I'm not always positive to you," interrupted Calipari. "Tell them the truth."

Truth be told, it is amazing how much this team has improved since that day in Columbia when Calipari was so frustrated he was ejected midway through the second half.

The Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, have made multiple huge post-season plays. Julius Randle remains a double-double factory. With Cauley-Stein in the locker room, Dakari Johnson matched his career high of 15 points on Friday night.

Off the bench, Alex Poythress was the key in the final four minutes that turned an apparent U of L victory into a stunning UK win.

From a disappointing No. 8 seed to one win from the program's third Final Four in four years, that is a great story.

"We've been through a lot," Aaron Harrison said. "Having some down days, we've gotten through it and we've made this little run in the tournament. We've had success in the post-season, that's what I'm talking about."

And the best chapter may be yet to come.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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