BOISE, Idaho — Kentucky had a long way to travel on short rest and it faces a tough potential path to even reach the East Regional Final in Atlanta. As the No. 5 seed, the Wildcats open with Steph Curry’s 3-point-bombing alma mater, No. 12 seed Davidson, and then could get No. 4 seed Arizona and No. 1 overall seed Virginia the next two rounds.
So why should you still believe in Kentucky as a threat to make its fifth Final Four in nine seasons under coach John Calipari? Here are three good reasons (or if you prefer the pessimist’s view, never fear, we also wrote about why the Wildcats won’t reach San Antonio):
These Cats have that 2014 feel
The youngest team in the country struggles all year, takes a confidence-rattling loss at Florida to end the regular season, clicks in the SEC Tournament and enters the Big Dance with a 24-10 record. Sound familiar? That’s all true of the current Cats and of 2014 Kentucky, which made a stunning run to the NCAA title game.
This group lost four straight games to open the month of February but has now won 7 of 8 and delivered a very impressive run to the SEC Tournament title last week. The hot streak has included five wins against NCAA Tournament teams: 3 seed Tennessee, 7 seed Arkansas, 8 seed Missouri and 9 seed Alabama (twice).
Freshmen Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and PJ Washington — along with sophomores Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones — rose to the challenge last week with the team’s best interior defender and rebounder, Jarred Vanderbilt, sidelined with an ankle injury. (Sort of like the 2014 Cats when Willie Cauley-Stein went down in the Sweet 16.)
Wenyen Gabriel is Aaron Harrison
It’s easy to forget now that Aaron Harrison was not a good 3-point shooter for most of his freshman year. He hit 30.6 percent during the 2013-14 regular season. Then in the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, he caught fire, hitting 48 percent from deep, including the clinching 3-pointers in the Sweet 16, Elite and Final Four to become one of the most memorable postseason performers in program history.
Gabriel shot 33.7 percent from deep during this regular season — then really caught fire, hitting 11 of 15 threes in the SEC Tournament last week, including a record-setting 7 of 7 day against Alabama. Hearkening back to an anatomical storyline about Harrison back in 2014, Gabriel said of his final two 3-pointers in crunch time of that game against the Tide: “I had the balls to make those shots.”
Yep, Gabriel is Kentucky’s 6-foot-9 Aaron Harrison (with the added bonus of rebounding and shot blocking).
2014 Final Four
Aaron Harrison BEYOND BELIEF!!! He beats Wisconsin to send #8 Kentucky to the final!
It's better with Titanic music! 🏀🚢🎼 pic.twitter.com/Zq71CycUU6
— 🏀🚢🎶TITANIC HOOPS🏀🚢🎶 (@TitanicHoops) March 31, 2017
Past performance predicts future results
John Calipari coached Kentucky to six Elite Eights and four Final Fours in his first eight seasons. He knows how to get teams ready for deep runs this time of year. Neither Arizona’s Sean Miller nor Virginia’s Tony Bennett have ever gotten a team to the Final Four. If seeds hold, those would be the Cats’ second-round and Sweet 16 opponents — which seems formidable as Arizona has potential No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton and the Cavaliers are the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.
But consider: Arizona failed to make the Final Four as 1 or 2 seed in 2014, 2015 and 2017, and Virginia as a 1 or 2 seed in 2014, 2015 and 2016 lost in the Sweet 16, second round and Elite Eight.
It’s fair to question whether Miller, who famously soaked his shirt during a first-round loss to Wichita State two years ago, has the poise to break through in big games — and whether Bennett’s slow offensive pace and Pack Line defense is a recipe for success in March.
The Cavs also suffered a significant blow Tuesday with the news that ACC Sixth Man of the Year DeAndre Hunter is out for the tournament with a broken wrist.
And if there are no major upsets in the bottom of the South Region bracket, leaving Tennessee or Cincinnati as UK’s final hurdle to reach another Final Four, the Vols have never been to one and the Bearcats haven’t since 1992. Advantage Cats? We think so.