Even if the slipper fits, can Kentucky ever be a Cinderella?

jtipton@herald-leader.comApril 2, 2014 

Kentucky Wildcats forward Julius Randle (30) celebrated as Kentucky defeated Michigan 75-72 in the Elite 8 on Sunday March 30, 2014 in Indianapolis, IN. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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Aaron Harrison's moon shot beat Michigan on Sunday. Two nights earlier, his three-pointer from the corner beat Louisville. The previous weekend, Wichita State's Fred VanVleet missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer.

Good fortune — in triplicate — helped Kentucky advance to this weekend's Final Four, and got the players wondering aloud about supernatural assistance.

"It's like a leprechaun when he finds the pot of gold on the other side of the rainbow," Dominique Hawkins said after UK beat Michigan. "It's incredible. I can't even believe the game ended like that."

On the opposite side of the winning locker room, UK's faith-based reserve, Jarrod Polson, said, "I don't know what destiny holds for the Final Four, but we're riding a nice wave right now."

Kentucky, which will try to become the second 8-seed to win the NCAA Tournament, has the look of a team that can do something memorable. Chuck Everson, a member of (so far) the only 8-seed to win a national championship, Villanova in 1985, sees how Kentucky can join the club.

"When they got by Louisville, I said, 'You know what, these guys can make some noise here,'" he said. "This could be good."

Everson credited UK Coach John Calipari for "keeping everybody's ego in check" and meshing a group of talented players into a more effective unit.

"Once you get guys playing for each other, especially with the talented players like he has on that team, the sky's the limit," he said.

But Ernie Myers, a starter during North Carolina State's improbable run to the 1983 national championship, cautioned against putting a label like "destiny's darlings" on Kentucky. UK makes too big of a footprint on college basketball to also fit into Cinderella's glass slipper.

"They're still Kentucky, now," he said. "It's not like this is Dayton. They might be freshmen and young, and people might think they shouldn't be where they are.

"But, hey, they still have seven McDonald's All-Americans on that team. They're not destiny. They're not one of those small colleges knocking guys off left and right."

Kentucky's season to date echoes what N.C. State did in 1983 and Villanova two years later.

N.C. State finished the regular season with a 17-10 record, then took hope by playing well in its conference tournament. The Wolfpack beat North Carolina in overtime in the semifinals and Ralph Sampson-led Virginia in the finals. "We felt we could play against anybody," Myers said. Of course, UK said much the same thing after losing to No. 1 Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament finals.

Like Calipari this season, Coach Jim Valvano repeatedly noted doubters and skeptics.

"He talked more about that," Myers said. "All the (betting) money was going against us. He focused on that. 'We're not even supposed to be here.'

"... The team of destiny came after the championship."

Kentucky's players remain mindful of those who wrote off this season as a disappointment.

"As young as we are, we proved to people that we can do something big," Hawkins said Sunday.

N.C. State won six NCAA Tournament games by a total of 32 points, five by a total of 13 points.

Why-not-us became something of a driving force once N.C. State got to the Final Four. "If we got this far, we've got to win it now," Myers recalled.

After Lorenzo Charles' famous put-back dunk beat Houston in the national championship game, Valvano told his players they would need 20 years to appreciate what they'd accomplished.

Myers noted how when he's gone to Final Fours (he's not going this year) he'll see banners recognizing past champions. Of course, he will look for 1983.

"Man, that's our year we did something great," he said.

Until then, the NCAA Tournament unfolded in predictable ways. N.C. State became the first team with double-digit losses to win the championship, something Kentucky would like to duplicate.

"We kind of felt we put the madness in March," Myers said.

Two years later, Villanova did much the same. Tied for third place in the Big East, Villanova's first-round victory (over 9-seed Dayton at Dayton) had the feel of a mild upset. Everson recalled a Mike Jensen layup that nearly spun out at a critical moment in Villanova's 51-49 victory.

"You have to be really good, as everybody knows," Everson said. "Really, a lot of luck goes into it, too."

Villanova beat two 1-seeds and two 2-seeds en route to the championship. Of course, the Final Four was played in Rupp Arena, where a second straight championship for Georgetown seemed a mere formality.

"It was supposed to be a dynasty on April Fool's Day," Everson said of the title game. "It was the world's greatest April Fool's joke.

"As far as destiny, as far as this is our time, that really didn't come into play."

Marcus Lee, one of the heroes of Sunday's victory over Michigan, said he did not believe in teams of destiny.

"I believe you have to work for what you get," he said. He noted how Aaron Harrison had worked hard on his shooting this season. That, rather than simple good fortune, helped Kentucky beat Louisville and Michigan.

But Lee could accept the notion of fate lending Kentucky a hand.

"I hope somebody's looking out for us," he said.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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