On March 8th, something changed about John Calipari and these Kentucky Wildcats. On March 8th, after leaving Gainesville Florida with a 84-65 thumping at the hands of SEC rival, and fellow Final Four participant, Florida, something changed. Something changed about these young Wildcats, that is making losses to lowly South Carolina, and at home to mediocre Arkansas seem like a nightmare that never actually happened. Kentucky went into the SEC Tournament losers of 3 of their last 4 games. The only win was an ugly 55-48 victory over a terrible Alabama team, at Rupp Arena. The Cats were struggling, then the Gators took that struggle to another level. Pounding Kentucky to close out the regular season. Then, something changed…
It was very evident that something changed early on in the Wildcats quarterfinal game of the SEC Tournament. The Cats looked more inspired on both ends of the floor in that game against LSU. Ball movement was crisper, decision making was better, and the defense led by Willie Cauley-Stein was suffocating. Calipari, who had been very disappointed with his team, hinted at changes during that week. Whatever he said, whatever he did, worked. After beating LSU, Kentucky went on to beat Georgia in the semifinals, before losing again to Florida in the championship.
Losing to Florida was a disappointment, especially for the 3rd time this season, but the Wildcats played much better and had their chances to win the game. So, even in defeat, there was plenty of reason to feel good that Kentucky was starting to look like the team that was once ranked #1 in the nation, and it was happening at the right time.
It really seems like that loss to Florida has been the catalyst for Kentucky’s Final Four run. However, it’s really hard to pinpoint any one area of play that has been the key. Improvement has been across the board. On offense, James Young and the Harrison Twins have been spot-on from 3 point land. That’s opened up things more for Julius Randle, who most teams double team when he touches the ball. On defense, before his injury, Cauley-Stein allowed no one free access to the hoop. Also, the play of Dakari Johnson and improved play off the bench has been huge. If I had to guess, I’d say it seems to be a more simplified approach from Calipari. The Wildcats seem to be more loose, but at the same time are more focused. The silly turnovers on offense, and miscues on defense are gone. These young Cats have grown up, in an incredibly short amount of time.
Now, the Wildcats get ready for the Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday. The second Big Ten team Kentucky has faced in as many games. Michigan, and their host of talented players was a great test for this young team. Wisconsin, has a balanced attack of their own. Player for player the Badgers aren’t as talented as the Wolverines, but where Michigan lacks size on the inside, Wisconsin doesn’t. A big difference in the win over Michigan, was Kentucky’s dominance on the boards. That was without Cauley-Stein for virtually the entire game. It’s still unknown whether or not Cauley-Stein will play Saturday. Freshman, Marcus Lee had a surprisingly strong performance in relief of Cauley-Stein against Michigan.
Lee, may be called on again, Saturday. If things continue to go the way of the Wildcats, the way it has since being blown out at Florida, expect Lee to shine again. Every button John Calipari has pushed so far this postseason has worked beautifully. If that continues, he and his young Wildcats may get another shot at Florida. Could the fourth time be the charm? What a fairytale ending that would be for a team that was left for dead a mere month ago. These young Cats have proven anything is possible since things have changed on the Bluegrass…..