(Photo © Bob Donnan | Getty)
Throughout the year, the preseason talk of Kentucky going 40-0 haunted this group; they couldn’t escape it, and in the worst times, it became a punchline for the national media. Instead of rolling over, this group grew up in the postseason and refused to let their failures define them.
Since Sunday, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how special this tournament run has been because of Kentucky’s regular season struggles. Would the highs of the past few weeks seem so high without the lows? Say Kentucky was 38-0 going into the Final Four. Would the wins feel as thrilling and unexpected? I don’t think so. Here are my five reasons 28-10 is sweeter than 38-0.
The program had reached the lowest of the lows under Calipari
Before you say “NIT,” let me stop you. Last year, the Cats at least had an excuse for not making the tournament in Nerlens Noel’s injury. After UK lost to South Carolina one month ago, the only thing Cal could point to was youth, and even then, that’s just the nature of the program at this point. Cal has talked a lot about his personal failures coaching this team lately, and I think in South Carolina, his frustrations boiled over, as shown by his absence in the postgame press conference. Under normal circumstances, an SEC road loss is not a huge deal, but for a group heralded as the greatest recruiting class of all time, UK’s eighth loss was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many fans and, of course, the national media. I’ll never forget that depressing drive from Columbia to Nashville, and being unable to shake the feeling that I’d seen something really, really bad go down that night. It was after that game that Aaron Harrison and James Young bravely met reporters and Aaron said that he still knows this team had a great story in them. Little did we know then that it was a story of redemption.
The vultures had to eat crow
No one was happier when UK lost to South Carolina on March 1st than Pat Forde. Forde and all the other reporters who dislike Cal finally got to open their pandora’s boxes of hate on him, with column after column flying out about how his one-and-done culture doesn’t work, and 2012 was just a flash in the pan. For Cal, who has been battling a whole other kind of pain this season because of his hip, it was hard to stay quiet any longer. Cal went on his radio show the Monday after the loss to try to calm down the Big Blue Nation and go after some of those reporters, who he said had been waiting “years” to get the chance to write those stories.
UK’s transformation in the past few weeks has been so remarkable that those reporters have been forced to eat crow, most notably Pat Forde in his column Sunday night. For a guy like Cal who thrives on proving people wrong, that’s one reason this season may be the sweetest of all.
There has been more growth
While 40-0 would be the ultimate conquest, I think this season has taught us that it’s nearly impossible with a team of freshmen. Juniors and seniors, maybe, but freshmen just have too much growing to do not to stumble along the way. I really don’t think this team would have been able to make their incredible postseason run if not for their losses in the regular season. After each of their big wins in the tournament, Calipari has said that this team’s struggles have only made them stronger, instilling a “never give up” mentality that otherwise, may have not been there. Andrew Harrison and Julius Randle were hyped as the team’s “alpha beasts” heading into the season, and both have struggled at times to live up to that moniker. Seeing them grow into the players they need to be has been especially heartwarming given those dips in the road. Besides, 40-0 may be immortal, but winning the title with a freshman starting five would be an historic accomplishment in its own right.
The road has been tougher
Kentucky’s road in the tournament hasn’t just been hard, it’s been really, really hard. Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Eisenberg argues Kentucky has had the most difficult path to the Final Four of any team in NCAA Tournament history. They’re only the sixth 8-seed to ever make it to the semifinals, and they had to beat three teams from last year’s Final Four to do it, including undefeated Wichita State and the defending National Champs in Louisville. If UK were undefeated coming into the tournament, they would most certainly be the number one overall seed, meaning their path to the Finals would be much easier. With few expecting UK to get past Wichita State, let alone all the way to the Final Four, these past few weeks have been so sweet because they’ve been so unexpected. After a regular season of regression, they’re peaking in the postseason. If you listen to Cal, they haven’t even reached the top of that mountain just yet.
Can you imagine how stressed out we would be if Kentucky were 38-0 right now? The pressure would be indescribable. I’m firmly in the “sometimes a loss helps” camp, not only because coaches can use it as a teaching tool, but because it can help motivate a squad (case in point: Indiana in 2011-2012). If Kentucky was rolling into the Final Four undefeated, that storyline would dominate everything, and would be close to impossible for the players to tune out. In contrast, the pressure has been off the Cats throughout this tournament, to the point that they’ve actually been considered an underdog by Vegas in two games. That hasn’t gone unnoticed by the team, who is playing with a very sharp chip on its shoulder. There’s less pressure on fans, too. After Kentucky beat Louisville, the season was made for me. Some could argue the same for the win over Wichita State. The rest of the run is on house money, which has made it that much more enjoyable.
The only thing sweeter than the Cats’ run right now? Number nine as the cherry on top.