Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

March 23, 2014

AARON SNYDER: Cats show up in time

Aaron Snyder
The Independent

ASHLAND — Cleanthony Early was Christian Laettner. He just didn't get the ball.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said that Sunday's nip-and-tuck battle was more like a game with a Final Four bid on the line than one with a Sweet 16 spot at stake.

He was dead-on. Everyone watching felt the same way.

Twenty-two years after "The Greatest Game Ever Played" ended, a similar, yet distinctively different, scenario surfaced.

The clock read "3.2" instead of "2.3."

The ball was entering play from the sideline instead of the baseline.

Kentucky's opponent needed a basket to win — this time it was a 3-pointer instead of a 2.

In a sense, too, the experience aspect was on par with 1992's regional final matchup.

Duke, the defending national champion with a slew of returners, faced Kentucky, which was a team full of seniors but had zero NCAA Tournament experience due to three previous years of probation.

All season long, no one could draw a comparison, even remotely, between the 2014 Wildcats, who feature an all-freshman starting lineup, and "The Unforgettables" from two decades ago. That is, until two weeks ago.

The day after Kentucky was blown away by Florida in Gainesville, Calipari sat in his favorite chair in his Lexington home and it clicked.

Why hadn't I done it all along?, he thought.

Right at that moment came "the tweak."

While the mystery epiphany was never fully divulged, the Wildcats have revealed the master's plan through remarkable results.

The latest was the most ironic and impressive.

Ironic because all the preseason talk surrounded Kentucky and its recruits and the prospect of going 40-0, but Wichita State, the "mid-major" from Kansas — another basketball state — brought the notion to near-fruition.

The Shockers threatened the 1975-76 Indiana squad, the last to cut the nets down with a perfect record.

By the way, how ironic is that? That Indiana was perhaps secretly pulling for rival Kentucky in 1972 Miami Dolphins-like fashion.

Wichita State boasted a tight-knit team that returned all the key pieces who paved an unforeseeable path to the Final Four in 2013.

Kentucky has two players with previous NCAA Tournament experience — seniors Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson. Polson played sparingly (two minutes) on Sunday.

Unlike "The Unforgettables," it was justifiable to question the hearts of the players beneath the jerseys. Did the "Kentucky" stitched across their chests mean anything at all to the Harrison twins? Julius Randle? James Young?

Sunday was evidence that, indeed, being a Wildcat wore close to the heart.

Next lies Louisville.

Now, that's a story itself.

The last two national champions, who obviously both hail from the Bluegrass State, were the last two to pin losses on Wichita State.

Three hundred and fifty-one days separated the Cardinals' and the Cats' oustings of the Shockers. In between were win after win after win for Wichita State, mounting and ultimately forming a case to place Wichita State atop the Midwest Region.

On Sunday, the Shockers showed they belonged there.

Kentucky knocked off a legitimate No. 1 seed.

It took a superb effort — maybe the best of the season — and a late dodge of Early.

Early, a senior determined to keep the flawless mark intact, wasn't perfect, as Laettner was in 1992.

But Early had 31 points. So did Laettner.

Early is from New York. So is Laettner.

But Early couldn't do what ******** did — I exhausted the amount of times I can write that name in a column.

Point guard Fred VanVleet had a decent look and fired away.

Off the back iron went the ball, and off the back burner went Kentucky.

The young Wildcats have finally arrived.

AARON SNYDER can be reached at asnyder@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2664.