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Defining moments: Reliving the games that made 2013-14 a season to remember (part one)

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By Ken Howlett, CoachCal.com

Sky-high expectations at Kentucky pre-date the arrival of John Calipari.

Regardless of the number of returning starters, the number of high school All-Americans or the strength of the nation's collective college basketball talent, Kentucky fans dream of watching their team cut down the nets after the last game of the season.

Expecting greatness is as much as part of being a UK basketball fan as listening to Tom Leach with the call and donning Big Blue gear for each game. But the 2013-2014 season carried with it elevated expectations, even by Kentucky standards.

With a roster stacked with what some experts claimed to be the most talented and deep recruiting class in college basketball history, Kentucky fans could best be described as giddy as the summer sun faded in 2013 into fall, and the sweet sound of bouncing basketballs reverberated off the walls of the Joe Craft Center.

Things, of course, didn't go as planned as far as the expectations were concerned. UK lost far more games than many had predicted or hoped, and freshmen, as they often do, struggled.

But as we all came to learn during the magical run in the postseason, it was those losses and that adversity that made the season so special. Those trying times tested the Cats, made them stronger and came to define their gritty resolve when the season mattered most.

So, in one last reflection on an unforgettable season, we're looking back at the defining moments of the 2013-14 season. The story will come in three parts, all in chronological order.

Here's part one:

1. Measuring up to Michigan State

The season began with Wildcat victories over overmatched UNC-Asheville and Northern Kentucky, but the contest fans and pundits alike pointed to as an early test of UK's painfully young squad was a tilt with the experienced, talented and supremely well-coached Michigan State Spartans.

The preseason No. 2 team in the nation (the Spartans received only three fewer preseason Top 25 Associated Press votes than the Cats), Sparty sported experience, size and a willingness to "get physical" with their opponents.

Kentucky's undefeated hopes came crashing down early in the season against Michigan State, but Julius Randle showed the nation on a big stage that he was one of the best players in the country. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kentucky's undefeated hopes came crashing down early in the season against Michigan State, but Julius Randle showed the nation on a big stage that he was one of the best players in the country. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's youth, though, responded to MSU's physical nature and battled the veteran Spartans for the full 40 minutes in Chicago's United Center (big-time Big 10 territory). Down 44-32 at the half, Coach Cal implored his team to keep fighting.

"I told them at half, 'Dudes, you're down six baskets. That's amazing. You should be down 20, 22 points right now. Now the question will be do you want to try to win the game,' " Calipari said. "And they did."

Showing all-important heart, the Wildcats battled through the first eight-and-a-half minutes of the second half, finding themselves down 59-46 with 11:33 left in the game, but UK rallied down the stretch, belying its youth and inexperience.

Julius Randle, continuing his season-opening streak of double-doubles, responded to MSU's size with 27 points and 13 rebounds, while James Young tossed in 19. Both players' performances gave UK fans reason to believe in blue even though UK's rally came up short in the 78-74 loss.

Along with the Cats misfiring on 16 of 36 free throws, it was the upperclassman guard duo of Keith Appling (22 points) and Gary Harris (20 points) who doomed the Cats with their heady, steady play.

After the tight contest, Coach Cal uttered what would become a familiar refrain.

"The biggest thing is, if you don't do this together, you will not win, you'll never be a special team," Calipari said. "So you've got to truly do this together, and that's both on defense and offense."

2. Reality checks to Baylor and UNC

After reeling off five straight victories, the Cats embarked on a made-for-TV event as No. 11 Kentucky traveled to Arlington, Texas to take on the No. 20 Baylor Bears at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys (and host of the 2014 Final Four).

In a game that was delayed for more than an hour because of the UK women's team's four-overtime victory over the Baylor Lady Bears, the Wildcats came out of the locker room ready to battle. And battle UK did ... for about 26 minutes of game time.

Leading 48-39 with 14:06 left in the contest, UK's youthful squad became complacent while Baylor ratcheted up its intensity, holding the Cats to 35.0 percent second-half shooting. Over the final 14 minutes of action, the Bears had Kentucky on its heels, outscoring UK 28-14 while pulling off the upset.

"I would hope they'd have more fight to win the game," Coach Cal said after the game. "They didn't. Baylor had way more fight than we had."

Although UK connected on 8 of 17 trey attempts and Randle posted 16 points and eight rebounds, Baylor turned the tables on Kentucky in the paint, netting 38 points in the lane compared to 26 for the much bigger Wildcats.

It was UK's ability to overcome adversity, though, which had Cal's ire up after the game.

"As soon as this thing got rough, and the first two raindrops hit - it's like a front-running team," said Coach Cal, who was so frustrated after the game that he left the news conference the first time a reporter asked one of the players a question. "The raindrops hit, we stop fighting. We start looking for excuses and heads are down. That's what we are right now."

After a nice bounce-back win over Boise State in Rupp Arena, the Wildcats traveled to Chapel Hill, N.C., to take on the enigmatic North Carolina Tar Heels.

Kentucky, playing like the young team it was, committed 17 turnovers, giving UNC a 22-13 advantage in points off turnovers for the game. Once again, making matters worse, Kentucky went cold from the charity stripe, making only 29 of 43 free throws. UK's big men were thoroughly outplayed by their Tar Heel counterparts, being outscored by a 49-24 margin and allowing North Carolina to connect on 48.2 percent of its shots.

Calipari lamented his team's concern for personal statistics over team accomplishments after the 82-77 setback, a loss which put UK's record at 8-3 and a No. 19 AP ranking.

"We're not a good team because our emotion is based on individual play instead of our team play," Coach Cal said. "I'm going to keep coaching them. We're going to keep getting better. We're going to try to point things out. But it doesn't matter how bad I want them to get it, they gotta want it. They gotta want to get this. They gotta want to understand this."

3. A much-needed win over an archrival

In what is always the highlight of the regular-season schedule for UK fans, the Cats and Cards hooked up in Rupp Arena on Dec. 28 with more than pride on the line.

Neither team's résumé had what could be considered a marquee win, and with UK dropping like an anchor down the polls after losing to Baylor and UNC, even the most ardent of the Wildcat faithful were in need of a boost up the ladder of confidence.

What Kentucky did in the greatest rivalry game the sport has to offer is what it had failed to do in its three losses: finish the game strong.

With Randle playing only 21 minutes due to cramps (but dominating the opening half with 17 points) and missing the entire final 11 minutes of the game, Young, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison stepped up their games, particularly in the final nine minutes.

With the scored tied at 53 and 8:45 remaining, Kentucky ended the game by outscoring U of L 20-13, with the UK guard trio accounting for 17 of UK's 20 points.

"This team is becoming a good team," Calipari said."We haven't been all year. Now we're starting. You know why? Because they knew if they didn't play together, they had no shot in this game. They had to play and do their job."

Coach Cal also credited the team's tough schedule as preparing his squad for a game of this magnitude.

"One of the things I told them prior to the game, what prepared us for this game was playing Michigan State, playing Providence, playing Boise (State), playing Baylor, playing North Carolina on the road, playing Belmont," Calipari said. "That prepared us for this game.  And so as much as I hate to say, every game I'm coaching is like a war, this team needed that."

Check back Friday for part two.

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