BOISE, Idaho — Admit it, you thought Kentucky was toast. Back on Valentine’s Day, when the Wildcats had lost four straight games to fall below .500 in SEC play, it was perfectly reasonable to believe these guys just didn’t have a deep NCAA Tournament run in them.
But somehow, in the midst of that chaos and criticism, as they were increasingly compared to the 2013 NIT Cats, John Calipari kept convincing this bunch of freshmen and sophomores of his vision for what they could become. What they suddenly have become: SEC Tournament champions, winners in nine of the last 10 games, and Sweet 16 bound.
“Coach has been telling us this whole time it will eventually click,” point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We just have to stay together and trust his word and trust the process. We’re doing so right now.”
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Gilgeous-Alexander, who came to Kentucky ranked as its seventh-best recruit and is now nine months later is a projected NBA lottery pick, is the poster boy for this team’s dramatic metamorphosis. He’s averaged 21.8 points, 6.6 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 steals in five postseason games and is arguably the best point guard left standing in the NCAA Tournament.
“They just make us work so hard throughout the season,” Gilgeous-Alexander said, “and when we work hard, our confidence grows. Coach Cal is always challenging us.”
Harvest time came late this season, but the last two weeks have yielded quite a bounty from that labor of tough love.
Kevin Knox, once content to settle for deep 3-pointers and hesitant to attack offensively, has settled into a super-efficient groove. Now he’s leaning on his bread and butter, hitting driving floaters, jump hooks and mid-range baseline jump shots.
Sacha Killeya-Jones, buried on the bench at the end of the regular season, has helped fill the void of injured Jarred Vanderbilt and become uncanny in his ability to ignite the Wildcats with ferocious dunks and blocks.
Fellow sophomore Wenyen Gabriel, the “veteran” of this team who had faded into the background, rediscovered his shooting stroke and has made 51.5 percent from 3-point range over the last nine games. He hit all seven he attempted in an SEC Tournament semifinal and delivered 16 points and 12 boards in a second-round NCAA Tournament win over Buffalo on Saturday.
Oh, and how about Hamidou Diallo? Confidence lost, NBA draft stock torpedoed, the guy once expected to be UK’s star averaged just 7 points in conference play — then erupted for 30 points, 11 rebounds, 5 blocks, 2 steals and 12-of-16 shooting in two NCAA Tournament games.
Admit it, you thought these Cats were history. But Calipari, who’ll now be favored to reach his seventh Elite Eight in nine seasons at Kentucky, never did.
“This has been my most rewarding season I’ve had in over 30 [years], or however long I’ve done this, because of what’s happening for Wenyen, what’s happening for Hami,” the coach said Saturday night. “You saw what [Diallo] is and what he’s capable of today. [All season] I was trying to learn about him and he was trying to learn about me. We were trying to figure this out.
“Everybody said, ‘Why are you starting him?’ Because he deserves it, I love him, and he’s going to do it. It just took us a long time.”
This isn’t the first time, of course. The 2014 Wildcats lost 10 games before the NCAA Tournament — just like this team — but figured it out at the last possible moment and made the national championship game. That team, like this one, started five freshmen most of the year.
It’s almost as if that is a difficult way to build a contender, and yet year after year Calipari does it.
One month ago, could you have imagined Kentucky playing in what amounted to an NCAA road game Saturday in Boise, where the crowd booed Calipari and the Cats and roared for the underdog Buffalo Bulls (who’d already upset Arizona) and these kids pulling off a 20-point win that turned into The Diallo Show at the end?
“It’s showing how much more mature we got over the season,” Knox said. “Earlier in the year, I don’t know how we would’ve reacted tonight. But it’s just our growth throughout the season has really grown. We’re starting to play in big-time environments, starting to play together on both ends of the floor, and it’s fun to watch. It’s great to see.”
Kentucky (26-10) is now just two wins in Atlanta away from a fifth Final Four under Calipari. Admit it, you didn’t see that coming.