Kentucky head coach John Calipari and his five starting freshmen will take on Michigan today in the Midwest regional final.
INDIANAPOLIS — The Kentucky men’s basketball team carries the panache of knocking off Louisville, the defending national champion.
Yet even as one of college basketball’s blue-blood programs, the Wildcats are a far cry from where they were in 2013: at home while the NCAA tournament carried on without them.
While Michigan made its first Final Four in 20 years, Kentucky was only a few days removed from an uncharacteristic first-round loss to Robert Morris in the NIT. It was a “signature” win of sorts for the program from Moon, Pa., — the hometown of Kentucky coach John Calipari.
A year later, the mention of the NIT caused Calipari to do some reflection.
“If Nerlens [Noel] didn’t get hurt, we would have been an NCAA tournament team and probably would have advanced,” said Calipari, referring to the Philadelphia 76ers center who tore the ACL in his left knee towards the end of last season. “Even without him, when we beat Florida and Missouri, two ranked teams [in 2013], I thought we were still going to get into the tournament and we didn’t. But we proved that the committee was probably right and we were wrong when we lost the first game of the NIT.
“But the big difference was that we didn’t have as many guys. This team was never going to be last year’s team. This team has size, talent, skill. We just had to come together as a team.”
Kentucky’s starting lineup has one distinguishing characteristic — five freshmen, in guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison (14.1 points), swingman James Young (14.1 points), forward Julius Randle (15.1 points, 10.7 rebounds) and center Dakari Johnson.
The Wildcats went 3-4 in their final seven regular-season games, but has taken down two tournament favorites in the last two weekends in Wichita State and Louisville.
“A lot of the issues we had come back to me,” Calipari said.
“The stuff we tweaked before the tournament I should have done two months before. And they know it.
STATUS FOR TODAY: Calipari said starting center Willie Cauley-Stein is doubtful for today’s game. Cauley-Stein leads the Wildcats with 106 blocks but sustained an ankle injury in the first half of Friday’s win against Louisville.
When asked about the availability of forward Mitch McGary (back) for today, Michigan coach John Beilein cut off a reporter with one word: “No.”
CALIPARI ON SOCIAL MEDIA: Calipari said he and his team discuss the impact of social media and the reaction it sometimes draws because of the passion surrounding the program, for better and for worse.
“We get them to understand there are a lot of haters and bullies out there,” Calipari said. “If you can't deal with it, don't read it. Social media is a chance for you to send out a message that you want to be positive, to pick people up, to let people know. And we try to teach them that.
“Do they see some of that other stuff? They do. And you gotta grow up kind of fast and not have it faze you. Now, does it make me mad? Yes, it does. Because some of it is personal.
"Some of it is agenda‑driven, where guys want to hurt the program and they're taking it out on these kids. And it's not right. But they withstood it all. It made them better. It made them stronger.”
WARE ANNOUNCES TRANSFER: A day after Kentucky eliminated Louisville, Cardinals guard Kevin Ware announced that he planned to transfer.
Ware became a rallying point last year for Louisville as it pursued the national championship. He suffered a broken leg in a 2013 Elite Eight game against Duke and played in only nine games this season, taking a medical redshirt after re-injuring his right leg in December.
Ware did not travel with the Cardinals in this year’s NCAA Tournament.