BOISE, Idaho (KT) — John Calipari is not one to make comparisons, but his current Kentucky squad is steadily becoming one of his favorite teams.
Never mind the Wildcats endured a rare four-game slide in February that likely cost the Wildcats the regular-season title in the Southeastern Conference. Kentucky rebounded down the stretch and won the conference tournament crown for a fourth straight time and carries a five-game winning streak into the South Region semifinals.
Without the luxury of a senior, a roster stocked with mostly underclassmen and a starting five consisting of all freshmen, the Wildcats have dealt success, adversity and everything in between. Kentucky was without one of its top newcomers — Jarred Vanderbilt — for most of the season before he made his debut at South Carolina in late January. The Wildcats got used to the idea of having Vanderbilt in the lineup until he injured his ankle prior to the SEC Tournament.
Although losing Vanderbilt was a big blow, Kentucky made the adjustment and other players such as Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones, Hamidou Diallo and PJ Washington helped fill the void. Consistent and steady play by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox provided the leadership the Wildcats needed in order to make a deep run in the postseason.
“This whole group is a bunch of competitors (and) we go after it every day in practice,” Gilgeous-Alexander said after the Wildcats rolled to a 95-75 victory over Buffalo Saturday. “We love proving people wrong.”
The challenge for Calipari and his staff was getting the players to conquer themselves.
“We are inexperienced and all of that stuff,” Calipari said. “My challenge was they had to establish themselves first. Second thing, they had to change how they thought about training, working and preparation. … Everyone is connected (and) everyone is for each other.”
Defying the odds is a trait Gilgeous-Alexander and the rest of the Wildcats pick up from their coach, although it took longer than usual for this team to bond and develop the right chemistry needed to be successful.
“It takes my team a year to really learn how important it is to use the entire day to prepare for a game,” Calipari said. “It’s rewarding to see individuals do what they’re doing. But it’s also rewarding to get them to understand they need each other because this is a team sport.”
Coaching one-and-done players have never been an issue for Calipari and the Kentucky coach has adjusted to multiple personalities rather smoothly during his tenure as coach of the Wildcats. The lone exception was in 2013 when Kentucky struggled mightily and suffered a first-round defeat to Robert Morris in the NIT.
Calipari has never been afraid to try something new and attempt to make history. Three years ago, the Kentucky coach envisioned a perfect season with a nucleus of veterans and newcomers, dubbed as the Platoons. The Wildcats won 38 straight games before losing to Wisconsin in the national semifinals in Indianapolis.
Calipari now has a Kentucky team vying to become the youngest team since Michigan and the “Fab Five” in 1993 to advance to the Final Four and reach the national championship game.
The Wildcats are four wins away from making history.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.