Michael Conroy, AP
Kentucky's Julius Randle stretches during practice for their NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal college basketball tournament game Thursday, March 27, 2014, in Indianapolis. Kentucky plays Louisville on Friday, March 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
After Kentucky's win over Michigan on Saturday, Julius Randle's ear-to-ear grin told the whole story. As a freshmen-laden squad, awarded a poor seed in this year’s best region, not many people expected the ’Cats to make the Sweet Sixteen, much less the Final Four.
But here they are — two wins away from being the best team in the land.
“We just never really let the criticism or whatever waver us,” Randle said, following the win over UM (via The New York Times). “And we just kept listening to Coach [Calipari], and developed as the season went on. We’ve just got a tough group of guys.”
It’s hard to think that only two short months ago, Kentucky was in jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament. In the wake of an in-conference January loss to LSU, a game that felt like rock-bottom for UK faithful, one thing seemed apparent: this Kentucky team lacked mental toughness. They were young, inexperienced and didn’t have the strength to climb over SEC-sized mental barriers.
“Look, this team is in progress,” coach John Calipari told The Sporting News in January. “The process we’re at right now is this: Will we have the mental toughness to break through and be the kind of team we want to be?”
To Calipari’s pleasure, I’m sure, his team has done just that at the perfect time. There is no doubt that Randle and the Kentucky Wildcats are one of the most mentally stable teams in college basketball.
You can almost read a weak-minded player’s mind by his body language. If he is frustrated, excited, mad or happy, you can tell by his facial expressions, gestures or posture. It is the mark of a truly tough player if his body language doesn’t reveal a thing about his feelings.
Just about every player on Calipari’s roster, especially Julius Randle, has nearly mastered this art throughout the season. The players could be 0-for-20 and would wear the same faces as if they logged a triple-double. From a courtside view at St. Louis’ Scottrade Center, I saw Randle put up 19 points and 15 boards against Kansas State while tuning out the distractions of a big tournament game.
There was definitely a pro-Wildcat crowd present at that game, but the K-State faithful made themselves heard. Like any top prospect, Randle was the subject of most of the heckling, but his mental toughness helped him focus and chalk a win.
It’s not only Randle, though; Kentucky is loaded with talented, strong-minded players. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have beaten America’s only (previously) undefeated team, the reigning national champion, and the Big 10’s regular-season king, all in an eight-day span.
From the perspective of an observer, it’s sometimes enjoyable, or even craved, to watch a player who has his emotions on his sleeve. But playing like that — especially in big games — will eventually get back at you.
In the end, mental toughness can’t be measured, but it is something that Calipari has instilled, discovered or developed in his players. Kentucky doesn’t have a star veteran to lead the team (the starting five are all freshmen), but they have pulled together through adversity and doubt. They’ve proved America wrong time and time again and are on the verge of doing it one more time.
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“We’ve been through so much and been doubted so much that we just came together at the end of the season, just got better, and I don’t know how many teams are mentally strong enough to do something like that,” Aaron Harrison told Eric Lindsay of UK Athletics. “We proved a lot to the world — even to ourselves.”
Their biggest test is ahead of them, and there is no doubt that they are tough enough to capitalize.
Samuel Benson is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.