NEWARK, N.J. — This is what John Calipari was brought in for. To get Kentucky back to the top of the college basketball world. To get Kentucky back to banner-worthy postseason results. To get Kentucky back to the Final Four.
It had been 13 years since the last trip to the Final Four, one that ended in a national championship. Since then, there were near-misses (Elite Eights in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2010) and some not so close (missing the NCAA Tournament altogether in 2009). After experiencing the NIT season, Darius Miller wondered if he would ever experience the success he expected at UK.
“I’m sure some of our own fans never thought we would make it here,” Josh Harrellson said.
And the thing that made it so special: this wasn’t supposed to be the year. Even though Calipari incessantly said he liked his team throughout the year, it seemed like the two surrounding rosters would be better equipped to end the streak. Last year had the supernatural talents who ripped apart any semblance of realistic expectations.
“It definitely was supposed to happen last year,” Harrellson said of the Final Four run. “We had the most talented team in the NCAA by far last year, position by position. But this year I think we played with more heart and more passion than we did. It’s more of a team game.”
Next year was (still is) primed to be the one, the collection of players that could make the deep run.
But this year? No. Not after losing five first-round draft picks. Not after losing the best player from the annual installment of top-rated recruiting classes. Not after losing six conference games on the road, blows to the psyche of both the fan base and the team — but not the coach.
“I kept telling them the whole time, ‘I believe in you,’” Calipari said. “I don’t know why you don’t believe in yourselves.”
The media didn’t believe in the team either, not with the Cats being so young and inexperienced. They wrote UK off. UK used it. A team so used to being the targeted one, the biggest draw on the road, was suddenly the underdog.
“Us always hearing we too young to do this, we don’t have enough experience to win the next game, and the next game, it feels good to prove them wrong,” said Terrence Jones.
There was one surge of belief for the team, after UK stormed through the last three regular-season games to earn a bye in the SEC Tournament.
“After that we knew we could be one of the best teams in the country,” Jones said.
But that uprising of confidence was tempered when the NCAA Tournament selection committee gave UK a No. 4 seed just hours after. So soon was the turnaround that UK hadn’t reached Lexington by the time the brackets were announced. And it wasn’t just the four seed that hurt – it was the region.
Last year’s season-ending West Virginia in the second round. The daunting Ohio State, the best team in the nation, in the Sweet 16. The blue-blood North Carolina in the Elite Eight. It seemed an implausible, if not impossible, path for UK.
“I did (believe) until I saw that seed,” John Calipari said. “Then I’m like, man, this is going to be a hard road.”
But the road was traveled. The three teams were felled. The Final Four was reached.
“We never gave up,” said DeAndre Liggins. “If we gave up, it would show that we’re weak.”