March 29, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Young Kentucky upstarts stand between young Michigan and Final Four

Rod Beard and John Niyo preview Michigan-Kentucky
Rod Beard and John Niyo preview Michigan-Kentucky: Detroit News sports writers on the Wolverines' Elite Eight matchup.

Indianapolis — This is what everyone was afraid of, isn't it? That it'd work? Again?

Probably so. And after the work was done late Friday night, after they'd beaten their bitter rivals, after they'd dispatched the defending champs, after they'd crashed the senior party, the answer was there for everyone to see in Big Blue letters.

Coach Cal and his Kiddie 'Cats are still kicking. The one-and-dones are getting it done.

And now that Kentucky is one win away from reaching the Final Four, predictably, the storyline the media started chasing Saturday — the eve of the Midwest Regional final here at Lucas Oil Stadium — was the ironic one.

If someone's going to put a stop to this, to send these precocious freshmen and their pugnacious coach home, it'll have to be Michigan, the last program — the only one, actually — to send a team with five freshmen starters to the Final Four.

Youth versus ... youth

Never mind the Wolverines happen to be the second-youngest team in the NCAA Tournament this year, with two freshmen and two sophomores in the starting lineup, and six underclassmen among their top seven. Or that these young Wildcats — part of John Calipari's latest blue-chip recruiting haul — know of the Fab Five only what they've seen in a documentary.

"They were trend-setters," Kentucky center Julius Randle said. "They really just moved the game of basketball and took it to a new level. But … I'm kind of too young to know that."

John Beilein, not surprisingly, was too caught up in his own team to even notice, or so he claims. Michigan's coach insisted Saturday that he'd only just discovered that Kentucky was starting five freshmen. He called it "a media thing."

"I wish we'd all just embrace the kid that's a grinder for four years instead of making this huge thing about freshmen stars,' he added. "Let's just watch — let's reward the kid that really works hard just as much as the freshmen stars."

That's a novel idea. Naοve, too, though it is fun to see Michigan's fifth-year senior, Jordan Morgan, getting rewarded for surviving the grind.

But this is also where it gets confusing anymore, now that freshman stars are the rule rather than the exception.

At one point Saturday, a question was asked of the Michigan players — something inane about defending the Fab Five's legacy by beating Kentucky, as if they'd really care — and both Derrick Walton Jr. and Nik Stauskas misunderstood. They thought the reporter was comparing this Michigan team to that one from a generation ago, instead of equating this Kentucky team to the Fab Five.

"For a team that's this young to do something so special, it means a lot to any program, but especially to us," Walton said, completely oblivious.

Randle and his teammates might be too young to know better, either, but they do seem mature enough to handle the hype and the pressure that has hounded them all season. They tumbled from a preseason No. 1 ranking to a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and from midseason ridicule to a postseason march that is now gathering momentum, just in time.

"I'm just happy we're playing better right now," said Calipari, coaching in the Elite Eight for the seventh time in the last nine seasons. "Because I'm telling you, we almost ran out of runway when we landed the plane. As a matter of fact, the nose of the plane was in grass. But we got down. That's all we were trying to do is land the plane. And if the runway was 25 games instead of 30 games, we probably went off the edge."

Instead, here they are on the brink of something big, "something special," as Randle put it Saturday, barely 12 hours after his 15-point, 12-rebound effort aided Kentucky's comeback win over a veteran Louisville team eyeing a third consecutive Final Four trip.

"But we can't worry about comparing ourselves to the Fab Five or anything like that," Randle said, shrugging off the persistent questions about yesteryear. "We're focused on us and on Michigan. ... We're trying to make our own history."

On to the next one

Recent history suggests it's harder than it looks. Calipari's grand experiment blew up in his face last spring, with a dysfunctional group that fell victim to injury and insolence, including some of his own. Critics celebrated the Wildcats' absence from the NCAA Tournament field and reveled in that humiliating loss to Robert Morris in their NIT opener.

But the revolving door kept spinning, and in came another top-rated recruiting class. This one better than the last, and probably all the rest, with six McDonald's All-Americans, including three or four projected to be first-round picks in this summer's NBA draft.

A mid-November loss to Michigan State was widely hailed as a victory for the old guard. And back-to-back defeats in the SEC were a sign this year would end much like last year for Kentucky. Yet instead of rebuke, we've seen something else the past few weeks, as the Wildcats "finally surrendered and lost themselves in the team," according to Calipari.

"We grew up," he said Saturday. "We have 18-, 19-year-olds that were counted out and ridiculed and crushed and (critics said) 'Can't play, not any good, bad guys.' I mean, you've got a bunch of good guys here that have stuck together through all the barrage, never let it affect them."

And now they're letting it all go — smiling, laughing, winning. A lot like that other group of freshman did more than a generation ago.

In a span of six days, Kentucky beat a No. 1 seed and the nation's lone unbeaten team in Wichita State, then rallied from a double-digit deficit to knock off last year's national champ in Louisville. If they can knock off the Big Ten champs Sunday, the Wildcats will have scored their own unnatural hat trick — beating three of last year's Final Four teams in succession.

More than that, they'll have made their own history, just as Randle suggested.

"I mean, taking five freshmen to the Final Four, that's amazing," said guard Aaron Harrison, one of the freshman twins in the Kentucky backcourt who hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in Friday night's win. "Just to go through a season like that and to really see how hard it is, I have much more respect for them now, even more than I did."

Something's better than nothing, I guess. And in today's college basketball, that's often all you get. So you might as well appreciate it before it's gone.

Derrick Walton Jr. answers questions during a press conference Saturday. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
See Also
More John Niyo