Remember back in mid-February, when the Kentucky Wildcats had lost four consecutive games? They looked like a run of the mill SEC team, having dropped seven of its 11 conference games. Do you recall the snickers, those saying that John Calipari had lost his recruiting touch, that his ride atop the one-and-done magic carpet was finished?
After their 76-66 Valentine’s Day loss to Auburn, it was all gloom and doom among the Wildcats faithful as Calipari’s critics and haters silently celebrated.
But the Kentucky head coach preached patience, saying that his young team would soon come of age.
Coach Calipari reacts to Kentucky’s seeding in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
And behold, over their last ten games they’ve gone 9-1. In this year’s NCAA Tournament, they’ve trailed their opponents for less than two minutes during the first two rounds. They survived a tough Davidson squad with a 78-73 win in the first round, then smacked Buffalo, 95-75, who was just coming off of 21-point pillaging of highly regarded Arizona.
And freshman point guard and Canada native Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, among the least heralded of their 2017 recruiting haul, has emerged as perhaps the nation’s best point guard not named Trae Young or Collin Sexton.
Kentucky, with top seeds Virginia, Cincinnati, Tennessee and Arizona having been knocked out, will play Kansas State on Thursday evening in the Sweet 16 as the highest seed left in a South Region that has been demolished by upsets.
For the first time ever, none of the top four seeds advanced in the South Regional. The final teams standing and vying for that coveted Final Four berth in the wackiest and wildest region of the 2018 NCAA Tournament are No. 5 seed Kentucky, No. 9 Kansas State, No. 7 Nevada and No. 11 Loyola-Chicago.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander did it all in Kentucky’s win over Buffalo. The freshman put up 27 points on 10-12 shooting, to go with 6 rebounds and 6 assists. Watch highlights, game recaps, and much more from the 2018 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament on the official NCAA March Madness YouTube channel.
“Forget the seeds,” Calipari told the media on Monday. “Everybody is 0-0 that’s moving forward and it’s not about seeding; it’s about who is playing the best. We are in a tough region.”
And very few teams seem to be playing better that Coach Cal’s young stable of immensely talented freshman right now.
Kevin Knox leads them in scoring with 15.6 points per game, Gilgeous-Alexander, who smoked Buffalo with 27 points, averages 14.4 and PJ Washington and Hamidou Diallo chip in with 10.6 and 10.3 respectively.
The offense is clicking, but very few are paying attention to how good they are defensively.
Hamidou Diallo scored 22 points on 9-12 shooting, to go with 8 rebounds in Kentucky’s win over Buffalo. Watch highlights, game recaps, and much more from the 2018 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament on the official NCAA March Madness YouTube channel.
And it’s hard to deny that Gilgeous-Alexander has emerged as a true superstar. He’s averaged 23 points, seven rebounds and 6.5 assists in the first two rounds of the tournament and controls Kentucky’s tempo in ways that are sublime.
His length and ability to clutter up passing lanes, guard the three-point line and bring secondary help bolsters the Wildcats’ vicious perimeter D. His mastery while orchestrating the pick and roll as a ball-handler and how he keeps defenders at his mercy while shifting gears and utilizing optimal attack angles is a joy to behold. His jump shot is still a work in progress, but his prowess at getting to rim to score, or send crisp passes to open teammates all over the court, with ambidextrous fluidity negates that weakness.
Kentucky is 6-0 in the Sweet 16 under Calipari, and the average margin of victory in those games is 14.5 points.
Watch the Game Highlights from Kentucky Wildcats vs. Davidson Wildcats Watch highlights, game recaps, and much more from the 2018 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament on the official NCAA March Madness YouTube channel.
They face a stern test in Kansas State, who defends the perimeter as well as any team in the country. And their point guard Kamau Stokes is one of the tournament’s best kept secrets. Stokes has been fighting injuries, but it’s only a matter of time before he reminds folks that he’s the same cat who dropped 24 points on North Carolina as a true freshman two years ago.
K State coach Bruce Weber is back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since he took Illinois to the national championship game with Deron Williams thirteen years ago.
But Calipari doesn’t lose when he gets his Kentucky squads to the Sweet 16.
When everyone else disparaged his team this year, when they fell out of the Top 25, when they were losing to Kansas and UCLA prior to beginning conference play, when Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M, Missouri, Auburn and the rest of the SEC thought they had their number, Coach Cal knew that he had the right ingredients. He just needed a little more time to get his flavors to marinate.
Now his freshmen are playing like vets with an emphasis on defense and sharing the ball.
Calipari saw his squad lose a heart-breaker in the Elite Eight last year to the eventual champion North Carolina Tar Heels. This team is entirely different, but don’t think for a second that he’s not using that as motivation to inspire this current squad, who many had left for dead in February.
This song should be #1 hit, yet underrated. It’s shame this song didn’t get more attention. SMH
And with the emergence of Gilgeous-Alexander, like New Edition once said, these are the things that change boys to men.