So it’s not 40-0, but a Kentucky basketball team left for dead on March 1 is headed to the Elite Eight just four weeks later. And after eliminating two 2013 Final Four participants in as many games–one an undefeated No. 1 seed, the other the reigning national champion and a chief rival–the Wildcats kiddie corps is all growns up.
A Swingers callback is still cool, right? Old enough to be retro, anyway–especially for the Kentucky youngsters, who were infants when the film was released.
Alright, so NHL ’94 probably seems as archaic as hieroglyphics to Julius Randle, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, James Young and Dakari Johnson, but it’s completely forgivable if head coach John Calipari jumps on the table at tonight’s team dinner and shouts, “They all growns up!”
The Kentucky freshmen matured seemingly overnight. From taking SEC champion and top-ranked Florida to the wire in the conference championship game to the upset of Wichita State and Friday’s rally against Louisville, Kentucky is proving its championship mettle. This is the team fans and pundits expected to see before the season, and it’s showing up at the right time.
It wasn’t just the ballyhooed Kentucky freshmen powering Friday’s 74-69 win, though. Yes, Randle notched a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds, and the Harrison brothers combined for 29 points. But the metamorphosis was particularly notable in the inspired play of Johnson, who was averaging fewer than five points per game but scored 15 against the defending champion Cardinals.
Johnson stepped up with Willie Cauley-Stein lost to injury early. A sophomore and thus a veritable old-timer on the Kentucky roster, Cauley-Stein’s presence leaves the Wildcats with a tremendous void to fill for Sunday’s showdown with Michigan.
Kentucky will need another big-time effort from Johnson, particularly with Michigan post player Jordan Morgan playing the best basketball of his career. Morgan is a senior, and Wolverines head coach John Beilein credited his veteran leadership after their Sweet 16 defeat of Kentucky’s SEC counterpart Tennessee.
Once again, upperclassmen experience vs. youthful talent will make for a sub-plot. With seniors Stephan Van Treese, Luke Hancock and Russ Smith, the contrast on Friday was certainly stark but the result is no referendum on veteran teams.
Kentucky is simply a talented basketball team finding its rhythm at the right time, behind the expertise of a coach who has done this dance before.