It wasn’t supposed to end like this. From the time of the Harrison twins’ announcement that they would skip the NBA Draft to return to Kentucky, these Wildcats were destined for greatness. It was a foregone conclusion that their talent, combined with John Calipari’s recruiting savvy and masterful ability to temper superstar egos, would lead to a national championship this year. Any questions about their season only existed as formalities, much like their opponents: entertain them, but know that the answer is so obvious as not to be ignored. Until it isn’t.
If the 2011-’12 national champion Wildcats team finally extinguished the idea that teams of one-and-done stars couldn’t win, this version was supposed to be the magnum opus for this contentious era of amateur athleticism. Upon losing in the 2014 national championship game to UConn, themselves using the national platform to make a case for change in college athletics, John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats immediately turned their attention to this season as a means of redemption.
Recruiting the number 2-ranked freshman class and pitting them together with the likes of Aaron and Andrew Harrison seemed like a formula for assured destruction. Turning Willie Cauley-Stein into a veritable basket lid didn’t hurt either, especially when paired with potential #1 overall NBA draftee Karl-Anthony Towns, and opposing offensive schemes sometimes devolved into variations on five-finger filet.
A 32-point carpet-bombing of Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks on national television in the third game of the season seemed to firmly put the idea of 40-0 into people’s heads. From that point forward, anything less would be a disappointment. Slight glitches against the likes of Buffalo, Ole Miss and Columbia aside, Kentucky’s machine might as well have been an Apple product, the iTeam, so sleek, so clean, not merely utilitarian and, certainly, primed for immediate obsolescence.
After predictably ambling through the SEC Tournament and initial rounds of the NCAAs with all the trouble of a suburban dad cutting grass on a Saturday afternoon, the cracks began to show in the Elite Eight against Notre Dame. Jerian Grant, Steve Vasturia and Zach Auguste pressured the Wildcats, and Pat Connaughton disrupted the usual order on the glass despite a poor shooting performance. For the first time, the team that should have won a game featuring Kentucky was not the Wildcats, yet the escape that Andrew Harrison’s foul shooting granted his comrades seemed to guarantee the championship. Surely, no other team in the nation, with the possible exception of Duke, could play them that closely.
Perhaps Bo Ryan got caught up playing pinball and didn’t hear about Calipari’s recruiting charm. Maybe the Wisconsin Badgers weren’t watching that Kansas game. It’s possible they got so caught up in locker room FIFA and Super Smash tournaments, or their fascination with stenography so outweighed their concern for the next opponent, that they simply didn’t know they were supposed to succumb to the Wildcats, the second-to-last domino in a row of forty set up only to fall into a sea of blue.
Watching Wisconsin meticulously shatter Kentucky’s glass house was, as has so often been the case with the Badgers this season, positively thrilling. Frank Kaminsky is the player of the year and is just so much fun, even if his frame doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the Ferrell-inspired moniker Frank the Tank.
Going into the game, however, many of the Kentucky fans I know weren’t afraid of Kaminsky. He was going to make an impact unless he had an uncharacteristically off night. The one to watch was going to be Sam Dekker, who has made this tournament his own debutante ball. With Kentucky up four and time running out, it was Dekker who led the charge back, nailing the 3-pointer which put Wisconsin ahead. The Wildcats’ three consecutive shot clock violations did nothing to further their cause, and there are always questionable official rulings.
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What this says about Kentucky, John Calipari’s coaching or the future of one and dones is immaterial at the moment, though surely there will be repercussions. Maybe Coach Cal cuts all of his returning players, even the end-of-bench seniors, before parachuting from UK to coach the Lakers. One of the best Final Fours in years has already produced one of the best college basketball games ever, at the expense of one of the best college basketball teams ever assembled.
The focus now shifts to Wisconsin, and the goofy cast of characters Bo Ryan has assembled. Kaminsky matching up with Jahlil Okafor, and Dekker playing foil to fellow tournament darling Justise Winslow, should make for another excellent showcase of amateurism®, brought to you by AT&T. Wisconsin is confident and dangerous, which is likely more than it could have said during last year’s Final Four.
I can’t imagine how it felt for those guys to beat Kentucky, but one college team from the past twelve months does have an experience not unlike theirs: this past football season’s Ohio State Buckeyes, who knocked off a seemingly dominant Alabama team with another expert recruiter, Nick Saban, at its helm before running over Oregon and one of the nation’s best players, Marcus Mariota.
Whether the Badgers will be able to siphon some mojo from their Big Ten brethren and avenge a December loss at home to the Blue Devils remains to be seen, but having disposed of one historically great blue team already gives them a full-time spot in college basketball’s collective conscience. For both Wisconsin and Duke, there is no table to run, only one at which to be seated. The waiter arrives Monday night.