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Final Four 2014: Kentucky finally finds itself at the end of winding season

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Kentucky was never far from the team it's become, no matter how distant it felt.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
SB Nation 2014 Final Four Preview

INDIANAPOLIS -- Among Kentucky's most contentious struggles with itself early this season -- by early, it's meant as recently as three weekends ago -- on its way to the most improbable Final Four run one could imagine for the unanimous preseason No. 1 team in the country was identity. The young Wildcats, like the teenagers they were, didn't know who they were or what to make of all the potential just beneath the surface.

As it turns out, part of that identity includes Aaron Harrison's likeness to Sam Cassell.

"He got big nuts, to be honest. He can't even walk right now."- Dakari Johnson on Aaron Harrison

"He got big nuts, to be honest," Dakari Johnson said of Harrison. "He can't even walk right now."

What had just happened was: Harrison had hit a pull-up NBA three with 2.6 seconds left to send the Wildcats to the Final Four over Michigan, 75-72. Johnson's characterization of Harrison was direct but still inside college basketball's lexicon of cleaned-up references. Bill Raftery punches up moments like that with a single word -- Onions! -- and that's exactly what he would've said were he courtside at Lucas Oil Stadium.

That a single shot redeemed Kentucky's season as much as Harrison's did, after he did it Friday against Louisville, is as unlikely as the Wildcats being in a position for redemption at all. A neutral-court loss in November to Michigan State was easily explained away; 75 percent of the team's rotation was comprised of freshmen playing in their third college game, and even then, Kentucky lost by only four. Non-conference losses to Baylor and North Carolina also hid well behind the facade John Calipari has spent years building to protect himself and, in case of emergency, the Declaration of Independence, but damning losses to LSU and Arkansas early in SEC season connected the earlier losses to real problems rather than bad nights at the office.

Calipari admitted after Sunday's Elite Eight win that the noise wasn't lost on him. He's been adamant in years past, especially since coming to Kentucky five years ago, that he never reads what's written about him or his teams. Sunday, he said for the first time this season that when his team was being trumpeted as the best shot college basketball has had at an undefeated team since 1976, his eyes were wide. But Kentucky learned in its third game of the year it wouldn't go 40-0, and it didn't take much longer for Calipari to figure out his team's weaknesses would keep it from any significant achievements the sum of its individual talents suggested it could shoulder.

"It was difficult because my choice coaching them was to allow them the body language, the effort less than it needed to be, the focus less than it needed to be; at times, selfishness," Calipari said. "And now, I became a little mean because we had to get it changed."

He insisted all along he knew how close this team was to the height it reached Sunday, and the players stayed optimistic even when results were very much not showing and it was very much nearing the season's end. After Kentucky's 72-67 loss to South Carolina on March 1 -- South Carolina -- Aaron Harrison took to the news conference in Columbia, S.C., and insisted the loss was frustrating but that the Wildcats knew what they could do. "It's going to be a great story," he said, sounding like someone in shock. Though Harrison was the only player to ever use this line explicitly, it's also possible Calipari told the players they could still write their own story that day. Kentucky's media relations department is very hands-on with training its players how to speak in interviews, and they stick almost exclusively to Cal-driven lines of thought.

Later in the news conference, Harrison was asked, sensibly, why he thought it could still be a great story. From an outsider's perspective, Kentucky's loss to South Carolina -- which was only as close as five points because Calipari was ejected with 10 minutes to play, and the Wildcats straightened up and made a run against a team that had no business beating them, let alone blowing them out -- was problematic because the poor execution and apparent apathy to making demonstrative steps toward improving it was a trend rather than an outlier on March 1.

Harrison's response: "Because we know what we can do. We know, we talk about it. Even after the game, we just -- we know what we can do, and we know we're going to make a run to have a big, great story for everyone to talk about."

The next week, Kentucky went down to No. 1 Florida on the Gators' Senior Day and lost 85-64. The game was never close, really. Florida scored on 13 of its last 15 possessions, and it didn't seem that strange in the flow of the game that the Gators could not stop scoring. None of the apparent problems were fixed, and the regular season was over. The single-elimination part of the season, the small fraction of the schedule that's the only exposure most people in the country will ever have to college basketball, was nigh, and the only thing Kentucky had proven was that it could lose any game it wanted to if it didn't set its mind to it.

Somewhere rummaging around in the six-day cocoon between the loss at Florida and Kentucky's SEC Tournament opener was the answer, or more likely, answers. Calipari presented the team with DVDs of film from every game Kentucky had played since the beginning of the season, win or lose, and he called players up one by one to run them through a shredder. He put football pads on the players in practice and encouraged rough contact, knowing his team thrived in non-conference play getting to the foul line at an absurd rate but that the Wildcats started shying away from drawing contact in the lane once conference play began. To date, Kentucky's free throw rate is 52.2, ninth in Division I and easily the best among Final Four teams (Wisconsin is next at 99th on that particular leaderboard).

Calipari also went on his weekly call-in radio show on March 10, two days after the 21-point loss to Florida, and said confidently he was installing a tweak to wake up his team's offense. It was small, he said, but significant. It turns out, the tweak -- speculated upon everywhere in Lexington every minute of every day, even when and probably especially when the fans to whom the comment was pandering were sleeping -- was simple. He gave point guard Andrew Harrison freedom to run things, preferring organic offense off drives in to the paint and dishes out -- like he had notably run at Memphis and, to an extent, in his first year at Kentucky with John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins -- instead of running set plays called from the bench that were weighing down players who didn't fit that kind of profile.

A brief moment of relapse for all involved seemed to remind the Wildcats they were pointed in the right direction. They trailed Florida 61-60 on the last possession of the SEC championship game on Selection Sunday, and Calipari uncharacteristically called a late-game timeout. He immediately turned to yell at assistant coach Orlando Antigua upon calling it, as if Antigua had unknowingly inhabited Calipari's body for the exact amount of time it takes to signal for a timeout. Out of the timeout, Andrew Harrison drained the clock and drove to the paint, dishing to James Young curling behind him. Young took too wide a step and slipped, and Kentucky never got a final shot.

Calipari regretted burdening his players with a set play with so much on the line, and he redeemed himself Sunday. Michigan's Jordan Morgan tipped in a ball with 31.5 seconds left, and the game was tied at 72. Michigan had scored at least two points each time it touched the ball in the final five minutes to that point, and the Wildcats weren't far behind, scoring on five of six possessions in the same span. Calipari called for time with about 27 seconds left, knowing the clock would run some more until Michigan gave its final foul before the bonus. In the huddle, Calipari's burden was appropriately light.

"He just told me to give Aaron the ball, to be honest," Andrew Harrison said. "Yes, sir. You don't got to tell me twice."

No voice has been more outspoken about belief in Aaron Harrison, who struggled with his offense considerably throughout his freshman year, as Andrew, his identical twin brother and the point guard responsible for getting him the ball. Much of those struggles seem like they couldn't have possibly been in the same season. Aaron is 22 of 44 from three since the start of the SEC Tournament, and when Andrew was asked Sunday what it meant to hand the ball off to his brother at the left elbow and watch him hit a contested 23-footer to send them to the Final Four in their home state, he choked up.

So all Andrew did was, he took the inbounds pass and gave it to Aaron.


"Let me just say this," Calipari said, knowing he'll always say whatever he wants to say whether it's relevant or not to the question at hand. "I've been around guys who make these kind of plays, and (Aaron) will love I'm mentioning Sam Cassell. He always said, 'You cannot be afraid to miss.' He's not afraid to miss."