Mark Story: For UK, a Final Four run like no other

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 31, 2014 

After Sunday's scintillating NCAA Tournament victory over Michigan, Kentucky has now earned 16 trips to the Final Four of the men's basketball tourney. Yet even for a school with UK's regal hoops past, there has never been a trek to the national semifinals quite like the current one.

At UK, there have been surprise national championships — 1958 and '98, to name two. UK has also won NCAA titles as a prohibitive pre-season favorite — 1978 and '96, to name two.

In a bizzaro-world twist, John Calipari's 2014 Cats (28-10) are headed to Arlington, Tex., for a Final Four meeting with Wisconsin in position to contend for a national title as both the pre-season favorite and a surprise team.

Has any team in basketball history ever started the season ranked No. 1 in the nation, had such a disappointing season that it dropped completely out of the Top 25 — only to then charge through the NCAA Tournament to the Final Four, and perhaps, the national title?

That's the path UK seems to be traveling.

Think about what Kentucky has done in its past three games.

UK has knocked a 35-0 team — Wichita State — out of the Big Dance.

No one had beaten an undefeated foe in an NCAA tourney since Duke upset then-unbeaten UNLV in the 1991 national semifinals.

Kentucky has eliminated both the defending NCAA champion, Louisville, and the defending national runner-up, Michigan.

According to Elias Sports, that had never happened before in NCAA Tournament history.

As an eight seed, Kentucky has beaten three straight higher seeds — Midwest Region No. 1 Wichita State (78-76); No. 4 Louisville (74-69); and No. 2 Michigan (75-72) — by five points or fewer.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, that has never happened before in NCAA Tournament history.

When Kentucky started five freshmen in winning Sunday's regional final over John Beilein's Big Ten champions, it became the first school to do that and claim victory in an elite eight contest since the fabled Michigan Fab Five in 1992. Of the eight players who played for Kentucky on Sunday, seven were freshmen. Even by the standards of John Calipari's "kiddie Cats" era, that was outlandish.

"It really is crazy," Kentucky senior guard Jarrod Polson said of UK's tourney journey Sunday after the Wildcats eliminated Michigan on Aaron Harrison's three-point bomb with 2.6 seconds left. "We've been facing some of the most talented teams in the nation, and somehow, coming away with really close wins. We've just got a lot of guys who are really clutch and like the bright, shining moments."

Which is yet another way that, in the current UK tournament run, up is down, dark is light and the earth seems to have fully reversed its spin. It's hard to imagine that the fundamental nature of a team's play in the regular season has ever reversed so dramatically in a post-season tournament as has happened with the current Cats.

Consider: Over the last four games of the regular season, Kentucky shooting guard Aaron Harrison hit 11-of-43 shots and misfired on all but six of his 20 three-point attempts. Yet in NCAA tourney play, the 6-foot-6 freshman has hit 13 of 24 treys and two of the biggest shots in UK history — the last-minute go-ahead three against Louisville and Sunday's game winner.

Asked about Harrison's emergence as a dagger-wielding, late-game assassin, UK sophomore forward Alex Poythress smiled. "A stone-cold killer, right there," Poythress said Sunday.

Before the NCAAs began, UK was 1-6 against foes ranked in the AP Top 25. Late in close games against the best teams, the Wildcats couldn't seem to get out of their own way.

Yet so far in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, Kentucky has already beaten the teams ranked by AP at No. 2 (Wichita State), No. 5 (U of L) and No. 7 (Michigan) and done so in gut-wrenchers that required execution to the final second. Ahead is a semifinal matchup with No. 12 Wisconsin and, depending on how the semifinals play out, a possible fourth meeting with No. 1 Florida.

Just three weeks ago, Kentucky was considered one of the bigger disappointments in recent college basketball history. Many were questioning (and I was one of them) whether the "one-and-done" model around which Calipari has structured the UK program was revealing fatal flaws.

After a Final Four run like no other, Cal and the Cats are laughing last.

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

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