John Clay: Kentucky the uninvited guest at this Final Four

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 4, 2014 

ARLINGTON, Texas — They are the party crashers.

Kentucky wasn't supposed to be at this Final Four. Not unranked Kentucky. Not the Kentucky that Dick Vitale labeled as the season's major disappointment. Not No. 8 seed Kentucky.

And then: Surprise!

This does not mean everyone is happy to see the Cats.

"They're the Yankees," Turner and CBS analyst Steve Kerr said this week. "They're Notre Dame football. They're the team that is just always going to be in the news. They are great for college basketball. Love them or hate them, they are a story. People want to watch them, either to cheer for them or against them."

Add objections to Kentucky's current one-and-done mode of operation. ("Succeed and proceed" was John Calipari's rebranding attempt Friday). Add the controversial current head coach. Many see this as a witch's brew.

"Coach Cal with his personality and his charisma and his brash comments sometimes," Kerr said. "I think throw all that together and it's easy to be the other side of the Kentucky question."

Now, having rallied from its own other side to gain access to Jerry's World, could the unexpected guest win the whole thing?

After all, there is a reason UK was ranked No. 1 in the pre-season. Talent. Lottery-pick type talent. Skill was not Kentucky's regular-season problem. Chemistry was.

By now, you know the course correction. After a season unworthy of a superpower, Kentucky is a superpower again, two victories shy of another banner hanging at Rupp Arena.

"It's very much a concern to watch them recently, without a doubt," said Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan, whose Badgers play UK on Saturday night, "because they're doing everything you need to do with the talent that they have."

The Badgers are not without talent. Known for Ryan's disciplined "swing offense," Wisconsin has diversified. The Badgers have walked it up — and have won. The Badgers have run — and have won.

"When people say we're 'a bunch of white guys who aren't that great athletically,' that doesn't really mean anything to us," Wisconsin star Frank Kaminsky said Friday.

Kentucky's athleticism is a tough matchup for any team, but Kaminsky is Kentucky's toughest individual matchup of the tournament.

Guarding "Frank the Tank" is no easy task. His 28 points and 11 rebounds led Wisconsin's regional finals win over Arizona, whose center remarked that what made Kaminsky hard to guard was he is so darn "awkward."

Kentucky is sharp. Dallas hometown hero Julius Randle is a double-double machine. Aaron Harrison is locked in, having made 13 of 24 three-pointers so far in NCAA play. Andrew Harrison is maturing. Marcus Lee blindsided Michigan.

To be sure, the Cats aren't steamrolling anyone. They needed a Fred VanVleet miss to beat Wichita State. An abysmal time at the free-throw line doomed Louisville. UK needed each of their seven made three-pointers to clip Michigan.

And yet, just when the college basketball world figured Kentucky's one-and-dones were about to pack it up, the Cats picked it up.

Here at the intended destination, will Kentucky's talent trump all?

"No. Look at UConn," said Grant Hill, the former Duke star turned Turner Sports analyst, referring to the Huskies, who play Florida in Saturday's first game. "I think Michigan State has more talent than UConn, but UConn played well that game.

"There are a lot of factors, not just talent. Teamwork. Togetherness. Being on the same page. When you have those moments and it gets down to nail-biting time, there's a toughness that is required and a maturity that's necessary. And luck. Luck plays a role."

Lady luck has blessed Kentucky's tournament journey, no doubt, but the team that began the season No. 1 is now within reach of a much better No. 1.

Out of luck a month ago, Kentucky could be the life of the party Monday night.

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

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