INDIANAPOLIS -- They looked like a basketball team. That incremental progress was enough to please coach John Calipari the first time his Wildcats beat archrival Louisville, on Dec. 28 in Lexington. Kentucky had started the season by losing its first three big tests, to Michigan State in Chicago, Baylor in Dallas and North Carolina in Chapel Hill, but against the defending champs, Kentucky's freshman coalesced enough -- particularly in a big second half from twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison -- that Calipari thought he saw the beginnings of a turnaround. "We looked," he said at the time, "like a basketball team today."
The thing about Kentucky, though, for the two-plus months that followed: It found ways to stop looking like much of a basketball team. It went 12-6 in a mediocre SEC, including losing three of four to close the regular season, not sharing the ball, and players and head coach alike displaying sulky, cringe-worthy body language on the court and sidelines. The Wildcats earned a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament after being ranked No. 1 overall in the preseason, and were slotted in a stacked Midwest Region that made Saturday's rematch with Louisville possible in the Sweet 16 at Lucas Oil Stadium, before a crowd of 41,072 that was heavy on adversarial factions of Kentucky.
And for the first 10 minutes of that rematch, too, the Wildcats did not look like much of a basketball team. They clanked jump shots and fell behind their rivals, 20-9; and Kentucky's entire team, which typically excels at offensive rebounding, was being outworked on the offensive glass by a relatively unknown redshirt freshman named Mangok Mathiang. It was precisely what Calipari expected.
"Before the game, our staff talked and we knew how this would start," he said. "They're going to pee down their leg."
That was one way of putting it. His team of five freshman starters settled for jumpers, looked confused on defense and dug a hole in the same building where Louisville clinched its trip to 2013 Final Four with a win over Duke. The Cardinals, for a while, looked comfortable in this setting, led by March-tested seniors Russ Smith (a Naismith Trophy finalist) and Luke Hancock (Mr. March, the 2013 Final Four Most Outstanding Player). Smith had 15 first-half points including a posterization of freshman Julius Randle on a drive-and-dunk off a high ballscreen. Hancock had 14 second-half points, including two free throws that put Louisville up seven, at 66-59, with 4:33 left.
But the game was defined by a comeback that the old Kentucky would not have made. The Wildcats battled from seven down to trailing by just one point, at 68-67, inside the final minute, thanks to clutch points in the paint from sophomore Alex Poythress and Randle, their All-America-caliber power forward.
And on the biggest possession of the night, with 39 seconds left, Randle backed down in the lane and made a play that the old Wildcats would not have made, either. Louisville ran a second defender at Randle, which would've made his traditional over-right-shoulder move difficult.
"Three weeks ago, he would have shot a hook to try to get that at the basket," Calipari said. "Now, he's just playing the game as it comes."
Randle already had 15 points and 12 rebounds, but zero assists. He spotted an opportunity in the left corner -- Smith had sunk in off of Aaron Harrison, against coach Rick Pitino's wishes -- and Randle kicked the ball out. The Wildcats' unselfishness, in the game's most crucial moment, was rewarded: Harrison sunk the three that put them up for good, 70-68, and they went on to win 74-69. To Calipari the play was symbolic of what was happening to his kids.
"They're playing for each other now," he said. "They have finally surrendered and lost themselves in the team. It's just taken us a long time."
Saturday was Kentucky's 37th game, and its biggest win yet. During the Wildcats' run to the 2012 national title Calipari spoke constantly about the selflessness of his team of future first-rounders, who were content to accept whatever roles were necessary to win a championship. That hadn't been the case with this team until, to some degree, in the SEC tournament, but mostly in the NCAAs, when Randle said, "We just kind of had to put the past behind us and leave it where it was."
The 2013-14 edition of Kentucky was once selfish, now scary. They rose up in time to ruin history for Wichita State in the round of 32, ending the Shockers' run at the first undefeated season since Indiana in 1975-76. The Wildcats woke up midway through their Sweet 16 game, in time to ruin Louisville's bid for a repeat national title. The result mattered in Kentucky as a rivalry pelt, one that lifted Calipari to 6-1 in games against Pitino. But on a national scale, it was the latest indication that the Wildcats -- never mind what happened in the previous months -- are a legitimate threat to win it all.
For Smith, whose career was over, the only (very small) solace was that it came at the hands of a worthy opponent. He even went to Kentucky's press-conference waiting room to congratulate the freshmen who would be chasing a title in his place.
"I empathize with our fans," Smith said later. "I wish I could have done it for them. But for me, it's nothing more than a loss to a great team." A team that was once so lost it worried not about looking great, but looking like a team at all.