LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — This is the most ridiculous thing you will read in all of the Final Four buildup. I'm typing it, and I don't even believe it myself.
Lately, when University of Kentucky coach John Calipari talks about his late-season "tweak" that fueled his team's postseason resurgence, I'm beginning to think he performed a team-wide transfusion, and replaced their normal blood with some kind of industrial-strength coolant.
I'd have said ice water, but eventually that would warm up. Maybe they're putting Prestone in their Gatorade, I don't know.
This UK team has been zombie-cold at the ends of games in the NCAA Tournament. I'm just going to say this, take it or leave it: Winter hung on forever in Kentucky this year. I'm starting to think that Polar Vortex was Calipari's tweak.
I know. I'm talking nonsense. Let's back up and get to the numbers. I can't take credit for them, I can only admire them. The credit goes to Guy Ramsey, who writes for the Cat Scratches blog on the University of Kentucky's official web site.
He's written about this, and maybe you saw it. But if you didn't, in the glut of stories that hits the web and air during a Final Four run, this one ought to cause you to slam on the brakes. Click here to read it.
Here we go:
In its past three games, all of them bona-fide nail biters against legitimate NCAA contenders, including an unbeaten Wichita State team and defending champion Louisville, the Wildcats have had 22 possessions in the final five minutes of those games.
They have scored on 20 of those possessions. And they've scored on every possession in the final five minutes of games when they've been behind.
That, you basketball Bennies, will win you a lot of tournament games. Keep it up, and it might win you all of them.
Let's break it down some more. Again, give the UK Cat Scratches blog credit for these. In a little over 15 minutes of clock time in those three games, on those 22 possessions, they've scored 44 points. They've made 11 of 15 shots from the field. They've made 5 of 6 three-point shots. They're 17 of 21 (80.1 percent) from the free-throw line. Of the seven misses that could be rebounded, they've grabbed four of the offensive boards. They've had one turnover.
It's not perfect. But it's as close as you can get to perfect. And it's even better in that same time frame when they are behind on the scoreboard. Nine possessions, 21 points, 6 of 8 from the field, 6 of 8 from the line, 2 of 2 from three-point range, no turnovers, four misses, four offensive rebounds.
That's like, robot stuff. It's cyborg.
For a team that young to execute that flawlessly in the final minutes of a single game would be impressive. For them to do it in the final minutes of two straight games would be a feat. To have done it in three straight means this team might win a championship.
The book on Kentucky was that the Wildcats would not run away from anyone. They have talent to burn, but they won't hit the gas, won't run away, and if you hang with them, you'll have your shot at the end of the game.
Instead, having it close at the end of the game has turned out exactly where you don't want to be with this Kentucky team right now.
"Very much a concern to watch them recently without a doubt, because they're doing everything you need to do with the talent that they have," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "So the guys with their physical and mental and basketball IQ's together is much higher, as with most teams as the season goes on. But I would say they have made a jump more so than any team I've seen."
Raise your hand if you thought back in February you'd be hearing Bo Ryan talk about Kentucky's basketball IQ in a good way. Also, raise your hand if you thought the Harrison twins would become the embodiment of late-game toughness.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino marveled at particularly the improvement of the twins, but also of the whole team, specifically its offensive execution.
"They have become a great team. A great team," Pitino said. "I mean, those kids can flat-out shoot the basketball. They have great size at every position. And you don't realize how good a player like (Alex) Poythress is coming in off the bench until you see what he's capable of doing. I'm sure everybody was caught off-guard by Marcus Lee to do that. The most impressive thing was that cross-over move he made down the lane. The dunks, everybody knew he could do that. Wisconsin is very difficult to play against, but they're only plus-one on the glass. It's going to be a tough matchup for both of those teams defensively, but Kentucky has grown in so many areas, because we played a great game and they beat us. That's about as well as we've played, with the exception of our free throws."
Aaron Harrison is making more than half his threes in NCAA Tournament competition, and all of them when the game is on the line. The young Wildcats are stepping into the final minutes and out-executing their more experienced opponents. And they've done it now three games in a row. They're doing it with offense, and when they get a stop or two, they have control.
And they're getting plays from a number of players. Julius Randle had a big assist against Louisville. Alex Poythress had big offensive rebounds. Andrew Harrison is driving, getting to the rim and getting to the free throw line. Aaron Harrison is hitting some of the biggest shots in recent memory.
Calipari's thoughts on this would be nice. He hasn't talked much about it. He's been asked, but quickly shifts into talking about tweaks, or larger themes on the season. Maybe he doesn't want to jinx it by talking about it. Certainly, he played a significant role when he got tougher in practice, urged his team to play in a more physical manner. That toughness seemed to tap into a previously undisplayed mental toughness, or maybe it developed it outright.
But it is, for everything else that has happened, the main reason UK finds itself in the Final Four.
Wichita State missed a three at the buzzer. Louisville led late. Michigan was down only one with 4:47 left. All those teams had chances and made some big shots. None of them did more late, or made bigger shots, than Kentucky.
"You have a couple fearless guys out there," Calipari said. "Shooting does matter in the NCAA tournament. One year we went 0‑20 from the three‑point line, well you can't win that game. So you got to make shots, too. I think that happened, we started shooting the ball a little bit better."
Started shooting it better, when it mattered the most. You may not see better end-game execution in any three back-to-back-to-back games than you just saw from the Wildcats. But they hope you do, at least for two more games in Texas.