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The redefinition of Kentucky euphoria

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UK is one win away from its ninth national championship with Connecticut standing in the way on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK is one win away from its ninth national championship with Connecticut standing in the way on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Ken Howlett, CoachCal.com

To fully appreciate the magnitude of what the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team has accomplished during its magical run to the NCAA title game, one has to understand the entirety of the story, for it's a multi-layered saga with nonstop drama.

"I've never witnessed a season like this," legendary former UK coach Joe B. Hall said. "It redefines what it means to cause the fan base to have such euphoria. This has been unreal."

The euphoria that Wildcats fans are feeling at the moment comes not only from the Cats' 12th appearance in the national championship game, but also from how decidedly unexpected the team's incredible tourney run is, especially considering that between Feb. 15 and March 8, Kentucky lost four of seven games in uninspiring fashion.

So bleak were the prospects of UK making noise in any postseason tournament that the Wildcat faithful had to look toward the heavens to see a snail's belly after a 72-67 road loss at lowly South Carolina on March 1, merely 10 games ago.

"People lose hope (when the Cats struggle so mightily); it effects everything they do in their lives," Hall said about the rabid UK fan base. "They're hurt, they're downtrodden and depressed. They enter the depths of depression when the team doesn't play well."

Not playing well is a kind characterization of how most Cat fans felt about how poor UK's late-season efforts were. Included in the four losses in seven games were back-to-back losses to unranked Arkansas in Rupp Arena, followed by the South Carolina loss then an 84-65 spanking at the hands of mighty Florida.

The Commonwealth was so down on this team, all aspects of how the program is run were brought into question by disappointed fans. Before, questioning the direction of the program was a laughable thought.

"There was a lot of talk that people don't like Coach Cal, they don't like the one-and-dones, he needs to get four-year players, etc.," former UK great Winston Bennett said.

Without a doubt, the Cats were scuffling.

Then came "The Tweak." After being crushed in the regular-season finale in Gainesville, Fla., John Calipari altered something -- perhaps the way he coaches his players, perhaps the way the team plays defense, perhaps in the way he handles the Harrisons. Theories on the makeup of the tweak are all guess work because Cal has been unsurprisingly coy as to exactly what the tweak entails.

Whatever the alteration might have been, Kentucky basketball history was waiting to be made, because the team was poised to make the singular leap from confounding to champions, in record-setting time.

"And then all of the sudden (for the team) to come to life?" Hall said, happily exasperated. "It's like the prodigal son returning home. It just lit up the world."

Reversal of fortune

Being saddled with an eight seed coming into the NCAA tourney, and with a bracket of top-10 teams awaiting the nation's youngest college basketball squad, Kentucky fans were left mostly to hope. Hope that the Wildcats they saw nearly upset the country's No. 1 team in the SEC title tilt, had enough left in them to make a run in the only tournament that really matters.

Hope quickly morphed into unbridled elation, as the Cats mowed down, one after the other, more experienced and highly ranked teams on their way to a Final Four for the ages.

"To come from where they came in the month of February is just amazing," UK analyst Mike Pratt said. "That's all I can tell you ... amazing."

It's not just that Kentucky has made it to the championship game of the NCAA tourney which has UK fans walking on air, it's the manner in which the team has executed a turnaround never before seen in the rich tradition and lore of Wildcats basketball:ยท

  • Beating the undefeated, top-seeded Wichita State Shockers in the round of 32 after being down 66-62 with 5:50 remaining. James Young's 3-point bulls-eye with 1:40 left in the contest helped seal the victory.
  • In the Sweet 16, beating the defending national champions, the Louisville Cardinals, after being down 66-59 with 4:33 remaining, giving UK fans their first glimpse of what clutch is all about, as Aaron Harrison absolutely owned a trey with 1:39 left, giving the Cats a 70-68 lead they would not relinquish.
  • Then came Aaron Harrison again, this time in the Elite Eight against second-seeded Michigan, as he rose up and tickled the twine with yet another 3-pointer, giving UK the lead with 2.6 seconds left on the clock and sending the Cats to Final Four for the third time in four years.
  • Beating No. 12 Wisconsin after being down 67-62 with 6:17 left in the game. The Badgers were seemingly in control of the contest until a late push by the Cats brought hope out of the closet. It was Kentucky's newest hardwood hero, Aaron Harrison, who elevated from 24 feet away and bottomed out a 3 with 5.7 ticks left on the clock, propelling Kentucky to the national title game and sending UK fans into a frenzy.

"I have not seen anything like this, and I think they've redefined the word iconic," Bennett said about this squad. "It's so amazing, I don't have words for it. Here they are in the championship, and your mind is just completely blown."

No Kentucky team has beat four consecutive top-12 teams to get to the title game. No Kentucky player has made game-winning shots in three straight NCAA Tournament games.

Take note Kentucky fans, because we are witnessing history. The kind of history passed down from father to son, mother to daughter. This team has defied more than the odds because late in the season, common sense dictated little hope be harbored for a meaningful postseason. The history of the thing, though, is in the Cats' response to the experts' (and many fans') dire forecast of failure.

"The ride through the tournament, against the odds, and against the teams we had to go through to get to the Final Four, and to get to the final game is just phenomenal," Hall gushed. "It's the toughest road Kentucky has ever had in getting to the final game.

Simply stated, the resiliency of this team is remarkable. The fans' and sports writers' ubiquitous derision of the club throughout the regular season did not deter this team; it did not cause hope to be lost in the locker room. The Cats were able to put the past just where it belongs -- in the past -- and then concentrate all of their considerable efforts on proving that they are indeed champions.

"You have to give a lot of credit to these players because they listened to Cal," Bennett said. "Now look, you're playing on the night where you will hopefully get the ultimate prize. And even if they don't, and I hope and pray that they do, but (if they lose) that should not tarnish at all the legacy of redefining an iconic brand."

For all the rightful talk of team, though, it's one player who rose above all others and crowned himself Mr. Clutch during this historic UK streak of excellence.

"Aaron Harrison is an example of a true winner," Hall said flatly about Kentucky's coolest customer. "A player who can take advantage of those situations, they have a sixth sense to be able to create such focus and confidence to execute to perfection when under pressure. And that's what a winner is; a winner wants that shot and has all the confidence in the world in taking it."

It's the entire team that deserves tremendous credit for displaying a mighty will to win, a willingness to be coached, and the talent to execute greatness. But some think Calipari needs a back pat, as well.

"Anybody who has any doubts about the greatness of this coach needs to be put away," Bennett said. "I mean seriously, if you had any doubts before now, he and this team should have eradicated and erased every doubt in your mind that he is one of the best coaches in the nation."

The legacy

Ten or 15 years from now, when we look back at the 2014 season, one word will come to mind: special.

"They led us into the deepest depression this community ever saw, and then resurrected us out of the doldrums, and took us to the heights ... a turnaround like this has never been seen," Hall said about this team.

It's not every day a Kentucky team rises from the ashes and lights the Big Blue Nation on fire with an NCAA tourney run filled with unexpected victory after unexpected victory. It's awe inspiring. It's the new watershed.

"The way they turned this whole season around in a week's time prior to the SEC Tournament should be their legacy," Pratt contends. "What made them connect like they are connected now. Their sacrifice to be able to make that connection. ... It would have been easy for them to just write it off, and say, 'We'll just do what we have to do, it's been a bad year.' But they were able to connect, and as Coach (Adolph) Rupp used to say, bow their necks and make a statement. And they certainly have. You have to give them all the credit in the world. It's been amazing."

The legendary perseverance displayed by these young players is what will stick in some people's minds as being the key component to this group spinning a lost season on its head.

"You can be in your darkest moment, and ready to give up, but as long as you continue to strive and keep doing the best you can, things have an awesome chance of turning around," Bennett said. "This team has proven that. I'm so excited about this team, I don't know what to do because it's so unbelievable what they've done."

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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