Kentucky's surreal season came full circle in championship game

jtipton@herald-leader.comApril 8, 2014 

Dominique Hawkins shook the sleep from his eyes Sunday morning, realized he really was in Dallas and considered that his team would play for the national championship Monday night.

"It's so surreal right now," he told reporters Sunday afternoon. "I woke up this morning and thought I was dreaming."

What a strange — yes, surreal — season Kentucky experienced in 2013-14. No UK season is boring. But this season proved strangely compelling for reasons pertaining to basketball, to the ceaseless excess of modern-day sports, to meteorology.

The same UK team inspired preseason talk of a 40-0 record and a late-season label of "major disappointment." The greatest freshman class ever assembled, at least if counting McDonald's All-Americans, became fatally flawed. Even with six super-sized freshmen, the callow Cats supposedly could not overcome inexperience.

Yet, there Kentucky was ... in Dallas ... preparing to play another unlikely Final Four team, Connecticut ... in the NCAA Tournament finals.

Yes, UConn won the game and took well-deserved bows. But Kentucky, too, could bathe in the one-shining-moment light.

"We just turned a lot of people's heads," James Young said after Monday night's defeat. "People that didn't believe in us at first, they believe in us now."

Belief was a sometimes abundant, sometimes scarce commodity this Kentucky season. It began with a presumption of dominance. The Wall Street Journal memorably stated that UK constructed a "Death Star" that would make amends for the embarrassing end of the 2012-13 season in a first-round NIT loss. Coach John Calipari fanned the flames of a wildfire by giving the crowd at Big Blue Madness what it wanted to hear.

"The Big Blue Nation extends far beyond the hallowed halls of college basketball's greatest arena," he said in customary demagoguery for the occasion. "It's a nation that stretches across 120 counties in Kentucky, all 50 states and to every country in the world."

Although college basketball's last unbeaten team was Indiana in 1975-76, Calipari did not douse the talk of a 40-0 record.

"Let me again tell you what I've said for about eight years," he said. "I've said, before I retire, I'd love to coach a team that goes 40-0. ... Will that happen? I don't know."

It did not. Michigan State beat Kentucky 78-74 in the season's third game. The Spartans scored the game's first 14 points, then weathered a big second half by the most heralded of UK's freshmen, Julius Randle.

A pattern had been set. UK would be wildly inconsistent throughout the season, either building big leads or being saddled with big deficits.

Bottom line: Kentucky played competitively against Michigan State, Baylor, North Carolina, Louisville and Florida, the latter joining Tennessee in 1978-79 as the only teams to beat UK three times in a season.

With what would be a 1-6 regular-season record against ranked opponents, Kentucky became only the third team to go from preseason No. 1 to out of the top 25.

Calipari included himself among those who got swept up in the hyperbole.

"I started reading what everybody was writing and I'm thinking, 'This is going to be easy,'" he said in a reflective moment in Indianapolis 10 days ago. "This was very difficult for all of us."

Mother Nature piled on. Ice storms complicated games at LSU, Missouri and Auburn. Snow made travel difficult for UK fans when the Cats played Georgia in Rupp Arena.

The nadir came in a 72-67 loss at South Carolina on March 1. The Gamecocks, en route to finishing next-to-last in the Southeastern Conference, led by as much as 16 points during the second half. Calipari got ejected.

Aaron Harrison — remember that name — spoke afterward about this UK team writing a "great story" the rest of the way. ESPN analyst Dick Vitale seemed more accurate when he labeled the Cats a "major disappointment."

Heading into the SEC Tournament, Calipari spoke of a "tweak" that would make a significant difference. He declined to identify the change, but the players spoke of Calipari easing off.

"Really, coach chilled a little bit," Young said after the LSU game in the SEC Tournament. "He just let us play basketball."

Looking refreshed and unencumbered, the Cats beat LSU and Georgia in the SEC Tournament. Although Florida won 61-60 in the finals, Kentucky made an impression on the Gators, which had posted the league's first 18-0 regular-season record.

A former skeptic, center Patric Young commended the Cats on their improvement. At the SEC Media Days the previous October, he had said UK's heralded freshmen would learn college basketball was "not a walk in the park."

The NCAA Tournament was difficult. UK's final five opponents had a combined record of 155-28 going into those games.

The word destiny started circulating as UK beat previously undefeated Wichita State. That idea gained momentum when Harrison made three-pointers in the final seconds to beat Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin, largely without the help of injured big man Willie Cauley-Stein.

When asked why it took so long for Kentucky to become so effective, Calipari said, "We start five freshmen. It takes a while."

The UK coach saluted his players' willingness to stay united through a season of questions and doubt. "It tells a lot about them and their character," he said.

Going into the championship game, Calipari's reliance on so-called one-and-done players got rehashed again, just as it was when Kentucky advanced to the Final Four in 2011 and 2012.

This time, that debate seemed more sideshow.

In a strange, surreal way, Kentucky's season came full circle with Monday night's game against Connecticut. Outsize expectations gave way to disappointment — even resignation. Then, the Cats found themselves playing for the national championship.

"This is the big reason why we all come here to Kentucky," Marcus Lee said. "To make it to the big show and be a part of something special."

Mission accomplished.

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

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