Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - A quick player turnover rate is nothing new for the Kentucky Wildcats men's basketball program and head coach John Calipari.
For years, Kentucky has been the "one and done" school. Talented young basketball stars have committed to play for Calipari and the Wildcats, and then after a year (sometimes two), they will declare for the professional ranks.
The same is likely true for this Kentucky squad about to make yet another Final Four appearance Saturday night against the West Region champion Wisconsin Badgers. Kentucky's starting lineup consists of five freshmen, four of whom have had their names mentioned in the first round of multiple 2014 NBA mock drafts.
Kentucky entered the season ranked as the country's top team, but a handful of losses during the regular season, including six in conference play (seven if you include the loss to Florida in the SEC Tournament's championship game), set the Wildcats back, which Calipari attributed to lack of cohesiveness and a general unfamiliarity among the players' playing styles.
But the fact Kentucky navigated its way into the SEC championship game, earning victories over LSU and Georgia to make it there, had national analysts wondering whether the Wildcats had found their stride - finally.
Had the NCAA Selection Committee based its tournament bracket on talent alone, Kentucky would likely be ranked higher than a No. 8 seed. But based on the Wildcats' body of work, the eighth seed in the Midwest Region (which some deemed the toughest region in the field) seemed appropriate. It was time for Kentucky and its band of freshmen to show the nation what it was capable of attaining.
The Wildcats, who now hold a 115-46 all-time NCAA Tournament record, had a tough road to get to the Final Four, going through defensive powerhouse Kansas State in the second round, then previously unbeaten and top-seeded Wichita State in the third round. And then, in succession, Kentucky defeated defending national champion Louisville and 2013 runner-up Michigan in a matter of two days to earn the trip to the Final Four. This team has grown up right before our eyes.
"Maybe they had to fail more," Calipari said. "Maybe they had to understand that you must surrender to your team, you must lose yourself in your team and understand that less is more when you're talking about team play."
Whatever the case, the core of freshmen and sophomores who make up the majority of Kentucky's playing time have turned themselves not only into a functioning unit, but leaders as well.
As a teenager coming into a nationally ranked program, becoming a leader isn't usually on the top of the to-do list. But forward Julius Randle has started to embrace his role as the team's go-to player and vocal leader. Randle's numbers (15.1 points per game and 10.7 rebounds per game - both team highs) reflect his maturity in the program. He's helped by James Young (14.1 ppg), Aaron Harrison (14.1 ppg) and his twin brother Andrew Harrison (11 ppg, team-high 150 assists), who are all first-year players.
Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress are both sophomores who contribute heavily to the success of the Wildcats, with Cauley-Stein topping the team in blocked shots (106). Freshman Dakari Johnson took over for Cauley-Stein as the team's starting center midway through the season and has had a large hand in turning the team's fortunes around.
"It just shows that we have really grown up," Johnson said after the team's 75-72 win over Michigan in the Midwest Regional final. "We just executed the way we were supposed to."
Johnson could prove even more valuable against Wisconsin if Cauley-Stein isn't able to go after suffering a sprained ankle that kept him out of the contest with Michigan.
Just two seasons ago, Calipari took another Kentucky team riddled with young talent all the way to the national championship game, where the Wildcats defeated Kansas, 67-59.
Freshman Anthony Davis went on to become the first overall draft selection after that season's national championship run, having garnered the tournament's MVP award. Fellow freshmen Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague also abandoned the Kentucky team after a season to go to the NBA, as did sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones.
How about Calipari's first year at Kentucky during the 2009-10 season? That was the year John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton all helped the Wildcats reach the Elite Eight before the experienced West Virginia Mountaineers slipped past them and into the Final Four.
Calipari is no stranger to taking completely new faces each season and molding them into a powerful national contender based on the type of players he recruits. Sometimes, as evidenced by this season, it takes longer for the players to jell and find their winning rhythm. But having successfully withstood a barrage of unbelievably talented opponents during this tournament run, Kentucky has now officially arrived. The preseason No. 1 ranking looks like it's starting to finally make sense.
"They're maturing right before our eyes," Calipari said. "They're playing for each other. They finally have surrendered themselves and lost themselves for the team."