LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — For the University of Kentucky basketball team, it took the season that was to deliver the finish it has become.
Coach John Calipari is kicking himself over not "tweaking" his team sooner.
But I'm not so sure if his team had been firing on all cylinders all season that it would've had the fortitude to do what it has done in its past three games — which is as impressive a trio of wins as you're likely to find anywhere, all worthy of Final Four magnitude, all requiring a major gut-check of a shot in the final minute to knock off an unbeaten, a defending national champion and last season's runner-up.
The Wildcats might've been seeded more highly had they not endured the growing pains. But they might not actually have grown. At least, that's my theory. I wondered what the players thought, though.
Before the Wildcats beat Michigan, I put the question to freshman Dakari Johnson last Saturday. Is the way this thing has come about the way it had to come about?
"I really think so," Johnson said. "A lot of people had high expectations on us early in the year. I think maybe it was unrealistic. Just losing games, early in the year, I think that really helped us and taught us something, that we have to play hard."
It also taught them something else — to listen. Young people today don't listen. In fact, adults don't listen. Everyone is about speaking, projecting, posting on Twitter or Facebook. Nothing about today's lifestyle promotes listening.
Calipari was coaching these guys all year. He says he's aggravated at himself for not doing things differently, but in the end, you can coach all you want, if players don't listen, it doesn't matter.
It took losing to teach players that they had to listen more.
"We thought we would just come in and just compete at a high level," Johnson said. "But losing kind of brought us back down to earth. Once we lost those games, we really bought into what coach was telling us."
Calipari, in hindsight, knows this. He told reporters on an Final Four conference call that as much as he'd like to coach a 40-0 team, for most teams, there's no shortcut.
"It's a process. You can't skip steps," Calipari said. "Part of that process is failing fast, sometimes failing often. The final step to all this is you surrender to each other, you lose yourself in the team, and you understand less is more. But that really takes time when you're playing seven freshmen in your top eight, and each of them scored 25 points a game in high school, that you must do less, and that would mean more for you. So it's a process."
One thing lost in all this — the Calipari brand of "players first" is nearly nowhere to be heard in that kind of thinking. What got this team where it is is "team first," not players first.
"We could've broke down early in the year," Johnson said. "We could've just said we're losing games, the season is over. But we just kept helping each other. That's the big thing we did, believing in ourselves and focusing on defense more instead of focusing on the offensive end."
Even the "players' first" coach is acknowledging that to succeed as a team, individuals have to yield to team. Calipari made tweaks late in the year, but he acknowledged that it may have been his team's willingness to listen to him as much as anything he told his players.
"My only hope would be to say to you maybe they weren't ready to accept it two months ago," he said. "Maybe they had to fail more. Maybe they had to understand that you must surrender to your team, you must lose yourself in your team, and you must understand less is more when you're talking about team play. But if they were ready to accept it two months ago, we wouldn't have been an eighth seed playing in the gauntlet that we just played."
It happens so often it shouldn't surprise us. Take a look at UConn. The last time we saw UConn in this city, they were losing to Louisville by 33 points. Thirty three. But get to the NCAA regional in Madison Square Garden, throw in a little magic from Shabazz Napier (ask Big East fans about UConn or Syracuse in the Garden) and you're back on track and in the Final Four.
People forget how Luke Hancock was cringeworthy coming off an injury at the beginning of his junior season, before becoming the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player at the end. In the Fall of 2011, they were calling for Tom Coughlin's head. The following February, his New York Giants were winning the Super Bowl. You can find your own examples.
The teams that overcome are those that block out negativity, that continue to have faith in each other, and that get good direction from leaders and from coaches.
This team got all those things. Everybody wants to fly above the clouds from start to finish. But it's the rare team that can do that. For most, it's in the valleys that teams learn. For UK, there's little question, it had to go through the low places to reach its current heights.
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