ARLINGTON, Texas — The four teams remaining in the 2014 NCAA Tournament have all gotten hot enough to earn a trip to Texas. But, when James Young — one of the Kentucky men’s basketball team’s five starting freshman — was caught day dreaming rather than listening to a question during a press conference Friday, he served as a reminder of what was the Wildcats’ greatest weakness in the beginning of the season.
“You think they’re no longer freshman?” Kentucky coach John Calipari said with a laugh. “That’s what you’re going to say to me?”
Calipari has become synonymous with the one-and-done movement in college basketball as he recruits highly-touted athletes that are widely expected to leave for the National Basketball Association after just one season.
Since 2008, Calipari has had at least two of his players drafted to the NBA and a total of nine top-10 draft picks. The NBA is the home of more former Kentucky players (22) than any other program in the country. Duke is next with 15.
The 2013-2014 season is no different. Calipari has assembled a group of highly athletic freshman, many of whom are expected to leave Kentucky for the NBA at the end of the season.
Although the Wildcats more than likely had the most talented team on the court in every game they have played in this season, they still had a learning curve to deal with in the first couple of months of the season.
“The thing that this team had to learn was the grind,” Calipari said. “How hard it was going to be and how hard you had to work every single day, they had to learn that. It took them a while.”
Kentucky lost three games in its nonconference schedule and would pick up six more losses in SEC play, but once the postseason rolled around the young Wildcats began to play up to their ability.
Playing with the first all-freshman starting lineup in Kentucky history, the Wildcats entered the NCAA Tournament with a total of 10 minutes of playing experience in the tournament on the roster.
But Kentucky came together at just the right time, taking down No. 1 seed Wichita State in the third round and became the first team to ever beat the national champion and runner-up from the previous year’s tournament after it beat Louisville in the Sweet 16 and Michigan in the Elite Eight.
Now the Wildcats are in their third Final Four in three years and will take on a Wisconsin team with a completely different philosophy to success.
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan has never had a player leave for the NBA after one season — and not even after two seasons in Madison.
“I did have one player,” coach Ryan said. “I had a three-and-done, and that was Devin Harris.”
Ryan molds his players into starters throughout the course of their four-year career, gradually granting more minutes as they progress. So Calipari’s willingness to start underclassmen is something Wisconsin players have never experienced.
“It’s pretty spectacular that five freshman are in the Final Four,” senior guard Ben Brust said. “As a freshman I barely played. I was sitting at the end of the bench watching and I learned a lot from that, but it’s a testament to coach Calipari.”
There is a benefit to Ryan’s system. Wisconsin’s players get the chance to learn behind more experienced players, while in Big Blue Nation the Wildcats are learning on the fly.
“Myself, as a freshman last year, I had Ryan Evans, Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz, J.D. Wise, Dan Fahey, those seniors that could show me how to do things,” sophomore forward Sam Dekker said. “It’s a different type of thing for [Kentucky] to me because I had guys showing me the ropes and they’re just going out there on their own and doing great things.”
Wisconsin’s starting line is made up of four upperclassmen, and every starter has played in at least one NCAA Tournament game entering this year’s postseason.
But at this point in the season, Kentucky believes experience is thrown out the window.
“Every team in the country has more experience than us, I guess, “ freshman guard Aaron Harrison said. “But I think how could it matter if we’re all in the Final Four and we’re all just playing to win a championship?”
Wisconsin hopes to have edge in age and experience to deal with the pregame jitters before the NCAA semi-final game Saturday, but after that it will be up to the players to decide the fate of their school.
“We hope that will help us, but at this point in the season you just throw everything aside and say the guys on the floor have got to battle; it’s time to go,” Dekker said.
[Image by Joey Reuteman/The Badger Herald]