Kentucky freshmen miss their chance to one-up the Fab Five
ARLINGTON, Texas -- A window into the psyche of the coach who was just denied his second national championship in three seasons:
Last October, a few weeks before John Calipari unveiled a title contender that would give even more minutes to freshmen than the Fab Five did in 1991-92, Sports Illustrated asked him about that Michigan team's impact on college basketball culture. What did you think of it back then, when you were in your first head coaching job, at UMass?
This was his answer:
"There were two teams at that point that took the long shorts. The UMass team and the Michigan team. And [the Wolverines'] biggest impact, really, was the long shorts. If you look back, one of my kids, Will Herndon, had shorts below his knees, almost like full-length pants."
Calipari later added, through a text message from his assistant director of media relations, that after reviewing old team pictures, the coach believed UMass had in fact worn the "long shorts" in '90-91. Yes: He was actually arguing that his Minutemen should have been credited with the Fab Five's signature fashion statement.
While Herndon did wear comically baggy shorts, he was just one guy, and I couldn't find any photos of him doing it until '91-92. That UMass team reached the Sweet 16 but was no more than a footnote from the '92 NCAA tournament. Everyone remembers the Fab Five, even though the NCAA vacated their run to the national title game as a No. 6 seed.
History, as Calipari knows, gets written by the bold and the disruptive, and only on the biggest stages.
AT&T Stadium, on Monday night, was a big stage -- perhaps even too big, given the abundance of binocular-rental stands on the concourses. It hosted the largest crowd ever for a national championship game. Some of those 79,238 people were able to see UConn, a No. 7 seed with two brilliant guards in senior Shabazz Napier and junior Ryan Boatright, beat Kentucky, a No. 8 seed that was the first team to start five freshmen in a title game since the Fab Five, 60-54.
Jerryworld's jumbotron provided assistance for viewing the celebration that ensued. When Kevin Ollie, the Huskies' second-year-wonder of a coach, was shown cutting down one of the nets, his video-board image approximately 1,000 times his actual size, Calipari was long gone. He was in a press conference lamenting that "I needed to do a better job for these kids today," and later saying: "I've never coached a team this young. Never. Hope I don't ever again."
Calipari had opened the season in the boldest way imaginable, proclaiming at October's Big Blue Madness in Lexington -- on the heels of a first-round loss in the 2013 NIT -- that "we don't just play college basketball, we are college basketball." He didn't discourage talk of the Wildcats going 40-0 with their greatest-ever recruiting class: backcourt twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, wing James Young, power forwards Julius Randle and Marcus Lee, and center Dakari Johnson, each a McDonald's All-American. Calipari endured hell as they lost 10 games and nearly imploded; he limped SEC sidelines with a bad right hip that needs surgery and a team that needed rewiring.
What the nation saw for much of this NCAA tournament was Kentucky in Full, its talent finally harnessed in a way that allowed it to emerge from what Calipari called "an absolute minefield" -- a route to the final took the 'Cats past Kansas State, undefeated Wichita State, defending champion Louisville, 2013 runner-up Michigan and Wisconsin.
The country saw Aaron Harrison do enough, senior guard Jon Hood says, "to go down as a Kentucky legend." That included hitting a go-ahead three from the left corner with 39 seconds left in the Sweet 16 against rival Louisville, a bomb from the left wing to break a 72-72 tie against Michigan with 2.6 seconds remaining in the Elite Eight and then the biggest one of all, against Wisconsin in the Final Four. With Kentucky trailing 73-71 and 5.7 seconds to go, Harrison ignored his brother's pleas to "Go! Go!" to the rim and buried a three from the same wing. It took 22 years, but the Wildcats had finally found a shooter to rival Christian Laettner in NCAA tournament lore -- and that shooter was a freshman.
In 2012, Calipari had used a starting lineup that included three freshmen -- Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague -- to prove that he could win a championship with a core of one-and-dones. The '13-14 Wildcats took youth to the extreme, starting five freshmen in more games (21) than the Fab Five did (15), and giving 75.9 percent of minutes to freshmen, compared to Michigan's 68.5. That put Calipari on the brink of proving that he could win it all -- and win a series of white-knuckled epics -- with next-to-no veteran support. But his twin freshman guards, on the season's final night, were outscored by UConn's Napier and Boatright, 36 to 15, and Kentucky could never get close enough to give Aaron Harrison a fourth chance at a game-clinching three.
The first great one-and-doner in Kentucky's Calipari era was John Wall, a dazzling point guard from Raleigh, N.C., who led the Wildcats to a No. 1 seed and an Elite Eight trip before becoming the top pick in the 2010 NBA draft. Before his current, All-Star season with the Wizards, Wall visited Lexington in September for the alumni game and played pickup with the incoming freshmen. "The main thing that I saw," Wall says, "is that how the Harrison twins played was how the team was gonna go." Wall watched the 6-foot-6 twins engage in what he calls "bully-ball" against him and other pros, trying (but not necessarily succeeding) to use their strength to create driving angles and score. "They played like, No one can touch me -- I can move at my own pace and do what I want."
But the Harrisons soon learned that they could not, in fact, do whatever they wanted in college. Kentucky got out-toughed and outrun by Michigan State in a battle of preseason No. 1 vs. No. 2 in Chicago on Nov. 12, and went on to lose nine more games, with much of the blame falling on Andrew, who play was well below the standards of previous, elite Calipari point guards, from Teague, to Brandon Knight, to Wall, to Tyreke Evans and Derrick Rose. Aaron, meanwhile, wasn't living up to his rep as a marksman, shooting just 30.6 percent on threes in the regular season. As they disappeared from the first round of mock drafts, the defining images of Kentucky's underwhelming year were an exasperated Calipari and a pouting pair of twins.
When Craig Brownson, the Harrisons' coach from Travis High in Richmond, Texas, visited them in Lexington at the end of February, he saw shells of his former stars. "They weren't having fun and they weren't playing free," Brownson says. "Aaron was passing up shots when he was wide open. Andrew looked unsure about when he should attack or move the ball. ... The Kentucky fan base is very passionate but not very patient, and coach Calipari was, at the time, very negative with them, and you could tell it was bothering them -- especially Andrew, because he felt like their offensive struggles were on his shoulders."
Brownson watched Kentucky lose in overtime to Arkansas -- Andrew committed a key, late turnover -- and went to lunch with the twins the next day. He asked them about life in Lexington, if they went off campus much. They said no; if they went to the mall, they would only do it during the week in the daytime, when there were fewer people to run into. The microscope had become almost unbearably intense -- and the team hadn't yet hit its nadir.
The Cats departed for South Carolina later that day, and the following night, March 1, they lost to the second-to-last place team in the SEC 72-67, with Calipari getting ejected in the second half. This seemed like the time to label '13-14 Kentucky the biggest flop of the one-and-done era. But Aaron, who scored 21 points against the Gamecocks, was defiant. In a teary-eyed postgame interview, he said, "We know what we can do, and it's going to be a great story."
The Harrisons were difficult to tell apart when they first arrived at Kentucky. Calipari even ordered them to get distinguishing haircuts -- Andrew chose a mild grow-out, Aaron got buzzed -- so he wouldn't get confused. But during the NCAA tournament, when the Harrisons rewrote their story, they became easy to differentiate. Aaron is the unflappable one -- "No matter what anyone says about him," Andrew says, "he thinks he's the best person in the world" -- and Andrew is the sensitive one. It took a visit from their father, Aaron Sr., in March, to ease Andrew's worries about his draft stock. "It's not like it's mandatory for you to go pro," Aaron Sr. told him. "It's not like you have to support your family. We're fine. I thought you understood that."
This was around the same time Calipari tweaked his tone with his point guard -- and loosened up Kentucky's offense by running fewer sets -- in hopes of rescuing their season. "Cal stopped being so aggressive with how he coached Andrew," says Hood. "He just handed it to him and said, 'Run the show. We trust in you and believe in you.'" Calipari's son, Brad, a junior at Lexington Christian Academy, says he saw more positivity from his father toward the Harrisons. "He started trying to make them realize what they could do," Brad says, "instead of telling them what they needed to do."
After losing to No. 1-ranked Florida by 19 in their regular-season finale, the Wildcats reached the SEC tournament final, lost to the Gators by just one point, and were placed in the Midwest region of death. In the round of 32, the Harrisons combined for 39 points -- Andrew 20, Aaron 19 -- as they knocked off No. 1 seed Wichita State in a 78-76 thriller. From that point, Aaron embarked on a three-game run of clutch shooting never before seen in the NCAA tournament. He kept stunning the nation and doing what those close to him had come to expect. Many years before Wall evaluated the Harrisons, another former Kentucky point guard saw them and foretold great things.
Dirk Minniefield played for the Wildcats from 1979-80 to '82-83 and later moved to Houston, where his son, Darin, joined the Harrisons' AAU team. During a fifth-grade tournament run by the Texas Titans -- the Dallas-based program that featured a phenom named Julius Randle -- Minniefield first saw Aaron ask to take a final shot, and then make it. "He was like ice water," Minniefield says, "so I started calling him Ice. He has no conscience in those situations."
Even as Kentucky struggled, Minniefield kept telling friends to just wait until the NCAA tournament. "What you don't understand about these kids," Minniefield says, "is they've been in so many big, single-elimination games in AAU, since they were 8, that when the time comes, they're not going to be rattled."
Sure enough, there was Aaron, in the final seconds against Wisconsin, receiving the ball from Andrew, deep on the left wing -- and then smirking while the clock counted down. "That's the best feeling in the world," he says, "being able to take the last shot." It was almost as if the regular season didn't suit Aaron. For him to seize the moment, the stakes had to be raised to win-or-done.
Calipari is never subtle with his messaging. He resents being black-hatted for sending 13 freshmen to the NBA who have received a combined $181 million in contracts, and so he tried, during a press conference last Friday, to re-brand one-and-done by introducing a phrase with positive connotations. "Succeed and Proceed," he called it, and this was no casual slogan-drop. The Wildcats were seen later that evening wearing Nike-swooshed SUCCEED AND PROCEED T-shirts, and Kentucky's pep band showed up at the Wisconsin game sporting the same attire. ("This is what we were told to wear today," said one band member.)
Calipari has been among the most vocal opponents of the NBA's age minimum of 19, which created the one-and-done culture, and also the coach who has benefited most from the one-and-done era. "If there's one thing about Cal," says Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart, "he's the best at adapting to whatever circumstances are in front of him."
And circumstances allowed Calipari, 22 years after the Fab Five became the most culturally important team of the modern era, and finished as national runners-up to Duke, to bend the game back in their direction, chasing two titles with predominantly freshmen. Members of the Fab Five watched the Wildcats' run with great interest -- and Ray Jackson and Jimmy King said they were even rooting for Kentucky.
"I wanted these guys to win it, to do something that we never got a chance to do," says King, who, like the Harrisons and Randle, grew up in Texas. Aaron Harrison says he felt a kinship with the Fab Five in the sense that when Kentucky's season was in a free-fall, it felt, as it did for those Wolverines, "like it was us against the world." When Randle couldn't sleep after Saturday's Final Four win, he re-watched ESPN's documentary on the Fab Five and felt deferential to his forefathers. "You can't repeat what they did," he says. "They were trendsetters. They moved the game of basketball."
This Kentucky team set no trends (unless you're among the blue-tinted minority who believes Succeed and Proceed will stick). What they did was push beyond the old extreme for reliance on rookies. Seven freshmen took the floor in Monday's finale, and they played 183 of the 200 minutes and scored 50 of the 54 points.
Calipari will not have to remind anyone about this team. They were the youngest and the most left-for-dead, and they staged a most exhilarating revival, only to come undone in the title game against UConn. "We didn't want to go out like this," Aaron Harrison says, "but the run we made will go down in history."
What Calipari could not do, after all these years, was finally one-up the Fab Five. And thus the first and brashest band of freshmen can feel safe about their legacy -- "We're the best team to never win a national championship," says Jackson -- and keep on talking the talk. "There's no way they could play with us," King says of these Wildcats. "You know I've got to say that. We wouldn't be the Fab Five if I didn't."