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Notes: Michigan matchup fitting for UK's fabulous freshmen

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UK will take on Michigan on Sunday with a Final Four berth on the line. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will take on Michigan on Sunday with a Final Four berth on the line. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Annie Dunbar, CoachCal.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- The streak of juicy storylines in Kentucky's NCAA Tournament run continues heading into the Wildcats' Elite Eight matchup with Michigan.

First it was the team (UK) that talked about going undefeated against the one (the Wichita State Shockers) that actually made it happen in the regular season. Then, in the Sweet 16, it was all about the in-state rivalry of two storied programs, the Battle of the Bluegrass and veterans vs. rookies.

Now, with a trip to the Final Four on the line, the UK-Michigan Elite Eight matchup presents a fitting storyline for a Kentucky group that, as recently as a month ago, looked too young and too inexperienced to do any damage in March.

Michigan, of course, is where the legendary Fab Five played. Heading into the 2013-14 season, UK was compared to that exciting Michigan bunch because of its six freshmen McDonald's All-Americans. That 1991-92 Michigan team had four.

As the year has worn on, the similarities have eerily grown, starting with the disappointment of the regular season.

Michigan, at one point, was just 17-8 and didn't win more than five in a row in the regular season, but the Wolverines came alive during tournament time. The Fab Five, which consisted of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, rallied their way to to the title game where they came up short against the top-seeded Duke Blue Devils, 71-51.

James Young, who calls Michigan home, grew up with Fab Five talk.

"It's amazing what they did," Young said.

UK ended its regular season 21-9, but like Michigan, has come on late, winning six of its last seven in the postseason. Like Michigan did 22 years ago, the Cats have banked on five freshmen starters to push them through games down the stretch of the season.

Facing the school where the Fab Five made their name, the freshmen Wildcats, none of whom were alive when the Fab Five played, naturally were asked on Saturday about the similarities.

"We don't pay much attention to that," Dakari Johnson said. "We just play each game and take one game at a time and just focus on winning ball games."

Michigan head coach John Beilein said he didn't even know Kentucky started five freshmen until Saturday when he looked at the roster.

"The first time I knew that," he said. "I really don't pay attention to that. You're asking the wrong guy. If you ask me about Michigan, I'll tell you about Michigan. I don't know what other people are doing until we play them. That's when I find things out. But I understand that's a media (thing). Freshmen playing is such an interesting fact that people make so much of it, and I get it. I get it. But my goodness, there's so many freshmen out there (in college basketball)."

For now, the comparisons between the Kentucky five and the Fab Five are eerily similar, but there is one key difference: UK's full story has yet to be written.

The balance between fun and accountability

One of Kentucky's focuses for pushing through the postseason is to have fun and enjoy the ride.

The regular season, which was bogged down by criticism for a failure to meet preseason hype, was not necessarily fun for the team. Now that UK is on a hot streak, some stress has been lifted and the players are enjoying themselves.

"We started to have a lot more fun," Andrew Harrison said. "Coach tells us whoever has more fun usually wins. That's what we just try to do. We just try to play together."

As the Cats have had more fun and won more games, John Calipari has been able to back off his team a little bit. Coach Cal cautioned reporters from making the assumption that it's been the other way around.

"Somebody will say, 'Well, he's been nicer. That's why (we're playing better),' " Calipari said. "How nice was I, Julius (Randle), last night? Yeah. You want to ask Alex (Poythress) how nice I was?"

Calipari described a balance between having fun and holding kids responsible.

"I'm holding them accountable, but they're playing the way they need to play, so I don't have to do it that often," Coach Cal said.

Of course, after those answers, a couple of the Cats were asked what it's like to play for a coach like Calipari. Young started to answer that "he's always positive with" him, at which point Coach Cal interrupted and said, "I'm not always positive to you. Tell them the truth."

Laughing, Julius Randle stepped in and shared why he believes Cal's toughness and persistence is what's best for the team.

"He's tough on us, but it's the best thing for us," Randle said. "He's going to push us every day. You may not like it some days, but at the end of the day it's what's best for us. It's not just about basketball. I mean, what he's teaching us goes far beyond basketball. It's a lot of life lessons. So gotta take it in stride every day."

Cats grounded the plane just in time

Short on time, Calipari said he was pleased his team got it together late in the year before time ultimately ran out. The Cats, after an up-and-down season, have come together and played well when it's mattered most.

"I'm just happy we're playing better right now," Calipari said. "Because I'm telling you, we almost ran out of runway when we landed the plane. As a matter of fact, the nose of the plane was in grass. But we got down. That's all we were trying to do is land the plane. And if the runway was 25 games instead of 30 games, we probably went off the edge. Just happy for this team."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

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1 Comment

It is not how you start...but how you finish.
But, burying yourself in the first quarter/half causes UK fans (like me) to age. When this season started I was 51 and now I'm 91.
Lets hope that UK wins their 9th NCAA title before I'm 100.

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