By Chris Emma-
(CBS) INDIANAPOLIS –– Long before a basketball was tipped this season, Kentucky fans were buying blue T-shirts with “40-0” in bold lettering. The stakes were high for the nation’s most touted team.
Coach John Calipari was more realistic. As the T-shirts were placed on the sales racks, the two-time Naismith Coach of the Year knew what was ahead. This would have to be his most masterful coaching job yet.
For a young, super-talented team to see success, Calipari needed time. His Wildcats had to mesh, and that required time together in adversity. Kentucky saw an early loss to Michigan State in the Champions Classic, a buzzer-beating dunk from Arkansas and an ugly defeat from SEC bottom dweller South Carolina.
Perfection was out of the realm for Kentucky — it simply couldn’t happen for a group in need of growth. Yet, here are the Wildcats, off to the Final Four. On Sunday evening, freshman guard Aaron Harrison drained a game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds, and Kentucky cut down the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium after a 75-72 win against Michigan.
It all came together.
“It’s a process,” Calipari said. “Every year, it’s a process. Some guys get it quicker than others. It took these guys a little longer, and it took me a little longer to figure them out.”
Calipari has built a unique model for success, reloading on freshman talent each season. The prestigious Kentucky program has become a factor for the NBA Draft. Fifth-year senior guard Jon Hood couldn’t even count the number of teammates he’s had during his time in Lexington.
How talented is Kentucky? A five-star recruit, Marcus Lee, is buried on the bench.
The key for Kentucky is the players must take the team over. There has to be a turning point each season where Calipari stops teaching and the team takes ownership of itself. This season, it occurred after the loss to South Carolina, when Harrison made a bold prediction to the media: Kentucky’s story was just beginning.
Wildcat players gathered after the game and vowed to make their season a success.
“We talked to ourselves,” said forward Julius Randle, a freshman who could become a top-five pick in the draft. “We just had to change things around.”
A roller-coaster season was just headed for its high point. Kentucky found its road to the Final Four as an eight seed, surviving scares from unbeaten Wichita State, in-state rival Louisville and Big Ten champion Michigan. Finally, the Wildcats reached their potential, at just the right time.
Through it all, Calipari was loose and confident. He could see his team hitting its stride. This is how his program’s model is supposed to work.
“At the end of the day — like I try to do with all my teams — you could see this team is empowered right now,” Calipari said. “It’s their team. It’s not my team. And I’m just there to maybe call a timeout to settle them down, to pick them up, to sit guys out when they’re not doing what they need to do for their team. That’s my job right now.”
Resiliency tells the unfinished story of Kentucky’s season. The Wildcats were down by double-digit margins in each of their last three games yet managed to pull through. Each comeback was a microcosm of their 2013-14 campaign.
“We’ve showed a lot of toughness,” said Harrison, the hero of Sunday’s win. “We’re just a tough group of young guys. It doesn’t matter about age. We just go out and try to fight. We just fight so hard.”
As the “40-0” T-shirts were being mocked during an adverse season, Kentucky was building toward its Final Four moment. The process was just beginning, and a young team was pushing toward its peak.
“We’ve just got a tough group of guys,” Randle said. “That was the biggest thing; we just never let criticism get to us.”
New shirts now represent Kentucky’s remarkable season. They say “Final Four” on the front. Not quite perfection, but it’s exactly what Calipari envisioned.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @CEmmaScout.