Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local Sports

March 30, 2014

AARON SNYDER: Wildcats journey has Fab Five feel

ASHLAND — Twenty-two years ago, Michigan’s ultra-talented all-freshman lineup struggled to live up to the hype. The Wolverines suffered eight losses, including seven in their conference, before NCAA Tournament play began. Many doubted, with good reason, that the group of first-year players could make a deep run in March.

Sound familiar?

Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young, Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson were all names yet to even be etched in baby books during the 1991-92 college basketball season, but what they’ve accomplished in the latter weeks of the 2013-14 season proves that pacifiers and potty training are far behind them.

Instead of bottles and bassinets, they’re thinking banners and big NBA bucks.

Today at 5 p.m. in Indianapolis, the new Fab Five will meet the school that housed the original Fab Five.

Jimmy King, Jalen Rose, Ray Jackson, Chris Webber and Juwan Howard entered Ann Arbor, Mich., as “the greatest class ever recruited.” The Wolverines’ four McDonald’s All-Americans brought in by then-coach Steve Fischer was a record-high for 22 years, being tied twice by Duke (1999) and Kentucky (2011).

The Wildcats’ new Fab Five shattered that mark, tallying six McDonald’s All-Americans — the five listed above plus Marcus Lee.

At times this season, some may have felt “Flop Five” better suited this team. A bit harsh? Possibly, but considering the prisoner-of-the-moment trap many have a tendency to fall in these days, perception doesn’t always present a fair picture.

The Cats have flipped the switch, trashing the past in favor of a future that is causing naysayers to squint their eyes.

Could they actually pull off a Fab Five-like roll to the NCAA title game on April 7?

As freshmen, Michigan’s highly touted alpha males knocked off Temple, East Tennessee State, Oklahoma State, Ohio State — even the Wolverines had to knock off their fiercest rival — and Cincinnati before falling to Duke, 71-51, in the championship.

Kentucky put on a defensive clinic to beat Kansas State, concocted a lethal offensive mix to down previously unbeaten Wichita State and ripped the collective hearts out of in-state rival Louisville with a impressively composed rally in the final minutes in the Sweet 16.

What had been question marks all season long have since been erased.

-Can they stick together as a team and rise above adversity? If overcoming an early 18-5 deficit and a later 66-59 hole with four minutes remaining wasn’t enough proof, keep in mind they climbed the mountain without 7-foot sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein.

-Do they have a shooter suited to shine in key moments? Aaron Harrison is a 34.6-percent 3-point shooter, but he’s hit some unforgettable long balls this March. The shooting guard drained a crucial trey to give the Wildcats a 70-68 lead against Louisville. He also banked in a 3-ball to put the Cats up 63-60 against the Shockers.

-How much can you really win with an all-freshman lineup? Well, that answer is still forming.

Without Cauley-Stein today, Kentucky’s youth is more prevalent than ever before under Calipari’s leadership, with the possible exception of last year’s NIT team.

Since Calipari took over five years ago, Kentucky has advanced to four Elite Eights, two Final Fours and won its eighth national title in 2012.

In 2010, freshmen John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and Demarcus Cousins were accompanied by established Wildcats Patrick Patterson, Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins.

In 2011, senior Josh Harrellson’s emergence, along with Miller and Liggins, helped steer freshmen Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones to a surprise Final Four appearance.

Miller came off the bench with priceless value as a senior in 2012, when freshmen Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were a group also bolstered by sophomores Lamb and Jones.

This team has had no major contributions outside of sophomores Alex Poythress and Cauley-Stein. While Calipari did shower Poythress with praise for his overall effort against Louisville on Friday, Cauley-Stein and Poythress combined for six points in 18 minutes in the regional semifinal victory.

Senior Jarrod Polson was the only other non-freshman to see the court. He played two minutes.

At this point, it’s fair to say that the Wildcats’ all-freshman starting lineup belongs in the same conversation as Michigan’s.

Whether Kentucky’s new Fab Five will join the Fab Five’s company in tournament lore as a Final Four team, we’ll find out on the court. Against Michigan.

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

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