LEXINGTON (AP) — Kentucky’s remarkable run this postseason demonstrates that it really is more important how you finish than how you start.
The Wildcats were expected to be brief postseason participants after beginning the month losing two of three Southeastern Conference games and falling out of the Top 25 heading into the league tournament. Kentucky (28-10) has won six of its last seven to reach its third Final Four in four years.
The way Kentucky stumbled into the postseason, not many expected the young Wildcats to put together this surprising NCAA tournament run.
While the Wildcats started the season No. 1 as a collection of talented individuals, they are playing with the poise and cohesion that was missing. Kentucky has won close games and is within two games of its ninth national championship.
Kentucky coach John Calipari hasn’t specified the “tweaks” he made before the SEC and NCAA tournaments that have made this run possible. What’s clear, however, entering Saturday’s matchup against Wisconsin is that the tweaks have resulted in the chemistry and performances he envisioned.
The timing couldn’t be better for Kentucky.
“Maybe they weren’t ready to accept (them) two months ago,” Calipari said of the changes during a conference call Monday. “Maybe they had to fail more, maybe they had to understand that you must surrender to your team, you must lose yourself in your team and understand that less is more when you’re talking about team play.
“If they were ready to accept it two months ago, we wouldn’t have been an eighth seed playing the gauntlet that we just played.”
Highlighting their coming-of-age performances are rallies against Wichita State and defending champion Louisville, and Sunday’s Midwest Regional final win over Michigan. Against the Wolverines, the Wildcats controlled the tempo and put themselves in position to win the game.
“It just shows that we have really grown up,” freshman center Dakari Johnson said after the 75-72 win. “We just executed the way we were supposed to.”
The Wildcats have had many defeats to learn from this season, but dropping three of five down the stretch highlighted the frustrating growing pains of six high school All-Americans learning to play unselfishly. During the losses, players appeared tentative out of fear Calipari would bench them for making a mistake, or they tried too hard to make something happen with forced shots or passes.
Then there were those pained facial reactions to foul calls, another lesson for the Wildcats — that play is over, move on to the next one.
The Wildcats have better managed their emotions and executed during a postseason where their only loss was by one point in the SEC championship to top-seeded Florida. They could meet the Gators for the fourth time this season if both reach Monday’s championship.
The Wildcats have shot inconsistently in the tournament but are getting the looks they want. Sunday was a good day for Kentucky, and Aaron Harrison’s game-winning 3-pointer against Michigan showed how much faith the staff has in him to take — and make — a shot with the game on the line.
Other roles have also become clearer in recent weeks.
Harrison’s twin brother, Andrew, has grown into Kentucky’s floor general and fed Aaron for Sunday’s game-winner. Guard James Young is creating more shots inside and outside.
Julius Randle remains a double-double threat despite being double-teamed and is demanding the ball more in the paint. Seven-footer Johnson has started the past seven games and been more assertive under the basket on both ends, something the Wildcats will need against Wisconsin with Willie Cauley-Stein injured.
Just as important are reserves Alex Poythress, a sophomore, Marcus Lee and Dominique Hawkins, who chipped in baskets and energy against the Wolverines. Kentucky’s reward is a 16th trip to the Final Four near Dallas, where the Wildcats look to continue proving this is how they should’ve played all along.
“Before, I think coach was coaching emotion and he was coaching energy,” Aaron Harrison said. “Now he’s just teaching us. And I think that we have our own emotion.
“We bring our own energy to the game, and coach doesn’t have to force that in us anymore.”