Doubt at your own risk. Flaws are overcome as easily as double-digit deficits in these life-is-good Big Blue days.
“They're playing great down the stretch,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “They'll be very tough to beat. You have to play great defense to beat them.”
Case in point — Friday night's 74-69 Sweet 16 victory over Louisville.
First-half Cardinal rout became second-half cliffhanger. The Wildcats (27-10) hit fearless shots, grabbed big-time rebounds, attacked every possession. They trailed by 13 in the first half, by seven with four minutes left.
“I told them you'll get punched in the mouth and will taste blood,” coach John Calipari said. “Either fight or brace yourself for the next shot. They fought. They made big plays.”
Consider freshman Aaron Harrison. His jump shot had disappeared (2-for-12) for 39 minutes, but not his confidence. So when he got an open three-point look with 39 seconds left in a tie game — a defensive mistake, Pitino said — he buried it.
Consider his twin brother, freshman point guard Andrew Harrison, who totaled 14 points, seven assists and two turnovers.
“It's not fair what we're asking Andrew to do,” Calipari said. “He's a freshman. I'm telling him at halftime, 'You've got to run this team better. Sorry, but I have no choice.' ”
Kentucky wasn't supposed to play with such crunch-time NCAA tourney toughness, but then, Calipari has mastered this one-and-done thing, last year's NIT glitch aside. You get super talent (these freshmen were acclaimed as the best in history, which is why UK was the preseason No. 1), let it simmer against a tough schedule and close losses (eight by five or fewer points), then unleash in the postseason.
Top-seed and unbeaten Wichita State went down last week. Now it was red-hot Louisville, the defending national champion that had won 14 of 15 games, that started three seniors, a junior and a sophomore against Kentucky's five heralded freshmen. Plus, Pitino was 11-0 in Sweet 16s.
But then, Calipari has been Pitino's kryptonite in recent years, with victories in six of the last seven meetings, including two in a span of four months.
“This team has fought the whole year,” Calipari said. “They kept believing in each other. It was just a matter of time. They're maturing right before our eyes. They're playing for each other. They lost themselves in the team. It's just taken us a long time.”
Early on Louisville (31-6) played like the poised, veteran team it is. Kentucky played like the wide-eyed freshman they had once been.
The Cardinals surged to a 13-point lead eight minutes into the game. They were a play or two away from getting the knockout.
Instead, they got drama, and then defeat.
“We've had an unbelievable three-year run, a special run, with two Final Fours, a national championship and now a Sweet 16,” Pitino said.
“We had some bad breaks (down the stretch). We gave up offensive rebounds. We lost it at the free throw line and the backboard. We beat ourselves a little bit down the stretch. We celebrated a lot in the last three years. We don't like losing to Kentucky, but give them credit.”
Pitino mentioned all the Cardinals who have played their final college game — Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Stephan Van Treese, and perhaps more. More NBA-caliber talent is coming, but that meant little at this moment.
“It's the end of an era for us.”
This was rock-star basketball directed by rock-star coaches. Pitino coached from his feet, Calipari from a seat – for a few seconds, anyway.
Decibel levels threatened to burst eardrums. Alley-oop attempts were swatted into the void.
This was experience against youth, raw talent against, well, polished talent.
In December Kentucky had beaten the Cardinals 73-66, but that was at Rupp Arena. This was in Indianapolis under March Madness pressure, and the Wildcats were 4.5-point underdogs.
“We didn't feel any pressure or worried about where this game could take us,” said freshman forward Julius Randle, who totaled 15 points and 12 rebounds.
“We had to put the past behind us. It was a new season. The postseason. It's survive and advance.”
Kentucky did both. More and more, it has the look of a national champion.
And that's no spin.