On Friday night the Kentucky Wildcats beat their arch-rivals, the reigning national champion Louisville Cardinals, 74-69. With the win, the Wildcats advance to the Elite 8 of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, and along they way they showed why the young guns have as good of a chance to take home the National Championship as any other team.
In a surprising twist of events, Kentucky was actually the more poised team throughout the game and the Wildcats kept fighting, despite not holding a lead from the 19:00 mark in the first half to 1:27 in the second half. Along the way, they lost Willie Cauley-Stein to an ankle injury that looked bad, and left a unit that only normally utilizes a seven-man rotation remarkably short on players. Most teams would have been left emotionally damaged by the loss, and the maturity in overcoming the loss surely serves well moving into the bigger stage of the Elite 8.
Kentucky was able to overcome obstacles, though by having its young players dominate the game and force a half-court battle, with Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson heading the fight. This front court duo combined for 30 points, 18 rebounds on 12-of-21 shooting and 6-of-8 on free throws and forced Louisville’s front court duo of Stephen Van Treese and Montrezl Harrell to both foul out. Clearly the impact of the likes of James Young, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison and Alex Poythress played a huge role, but without the contributions of Johnson and Randle the Wildcats wouldn’t have won the rebound battle 37-29, and moreover wouldn’t have won the game.
The fact that six players really contributed for Kentucky on the night with the sophomore Poythress as the elder statesman says something about the stewardship of John Calipari, and the players he has recruited. Over the last three weekends the unit has really coalesced around playing physical and stifling defense to accompany an offense that can really attack teams in many different ways. Furthermore, they have stepped up to the plate during tough situations, showing a level of maturity as individuals that couldn’t be expected out of seniors.
It is now safe to say that Kentucky is the most talented team remaining in the NCAA Tournament, but the Wildcats also may be the side that best understands their role. And after beating Wichita State and Louisville in back-to-back games, it is safe to say they are the most battle tested team in the NCAA Tournament, and surely have to be considered on of the favorites to be crowned national champions.