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March 29, 2014
Cats hoping to repeat Fab Five feat
INDIANAPOLIS -- Andrew Harrison has seen the documentary about them "maybe 10 times." Dakari Johnson can reel off 80 percent of their names.
It speaks to the lasting influence of Michigan's famous Fab Five that it's still relevant to a group of Kentucky basketball players who weren't even born when the young Wolverines took college basketball by storm.
"I have tremendous respect for what they were doing," said UK freshman Julius Randle, born three years after Michigan's Fab Five started its freshman season. "They're all great players who had great careers. They were trendsetters."
And as Kentucky tries to become the first to repeat Michigan's feat -- reaching the Final Four with five freshman starters -- there's an irony in the Wildcats' NCAA Elite Eight obstacle on Sunday.
Standing in Kentucky's way is Michigan, former home to Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson (the one Johnson couldn't name), who as freshmen led the Wolverines to a later-vacated Final Four with baggy shorts and black socks that made them a pop-culture phenomenon.
This season's Wolverines (28-8) bear little resemblance to the 1991-92 team that reached the NCAA title game before bowing out to Duke.
But there's a straight line from the Fab Five to Kentucky (27-10).
Both those Wolverines and these Wildcats ultimately settled into a five-freshman starting lineup. Both had their struggles during the regular season -- Michigan lost eight games, Kentucky 10 -- and got hot down the stretch.
And though UK will try to race past the current Michigan team on Sunday to reach the Final Four, there's a way in which it's chasing those vintage Wolverines.
"If we can be anything compared to those guys or remembered like those guys, it would be a terrific honor," Randle said. "But it's just kind of hard to do. They did a lot for the game. We're just trying to be ourselves and take it a game at a time and hopefully do something special."
The Cats already have had some special moments this March.
Kentucky got here by knocking off previously unbeaten Wichita State in the Round of 32, then rallying past rival Louisville in the Sweet 16.
None of that seemed very likely when the month opened.
On March 1, UK lost at 72-67 at South Carolina -- at the time, tied for last place in the Southeastern Conference -- a game that Johnson and Harrison singled out Saturday as the Wildcats' low point of the season.
An uninspiring home win against Alabama and a blowout loss at Florida followed to close out the regular season, and UK had done little to inspire confidence in an NCAA Tournament run.
But a funny thing happened as Kentucky turned the page to the postseason.
"We grew up," coach John Calipari said. "We have 18 , 19 year olds that were counted out and ridiculed and crushed and (told they) can't play, not any good, bad guys."
The Cats were selfish when Calipari demanded they be selfless. They were wrapped up in individual play. Though the players got along, they seemed not to trust one another enough to allow teammates to make critical plays.
"I'm telling you, we almost ran out of runway when we landed the plane," Calipari said. "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."
The tournament so far has been a smooth touchdown.
It's emblematic of Kentucky's turnaround that the key play in Friday's win against Louisville -- an Aaron Harrison three-pointer with 39.1 seconds to play that put the Cats up for good -- came on a pass to the corner that Randle admitted Saturday he likely wouldn't have made in the regular season.
"Really, we could have broke down early in the year," Johnson said. "We could have just said, 'We're losing games. The season's over.' But I think we really bought into helping each other -- especially at the defensive end -- and playing together as a team."
The result is a Kentucky team that "certainly ended playing as well as they have all year long," Michigan coach John Beilein said.
So did the Fab Five, which won its final three regular-season games -- there was no Big Ten Tournament in those days -- and beat a rival, Ohio State, on its road to the Final Four.
The comparison isn't lost on the Cats, who know about the Fab Five mostly from that ubiquitous ESPN documentary. But it's largely meaningless both to Kentucky and to Michigan.
Beilein said his review of UK for scouting purposes was the first time he realized the Cats were starting five freshmen, and lamented that the media doesn't "just embrace the kid that's a grinder for four years instead of making this huge thing about freshmen stars."
In 1992, it was Michigan with those freshman stars. The Fab Five shook up the establishment and, in many ways, paved the way for the program that Cailpari has built at Kentucky.
It has the same challenges now it did then.
"Taking five freshmen to the Final Four, that's amazing," Aaron Harrison said. "Just to go through a season like that and to see how hard it is, I really have much more respect for them now -- even more than I did before."
Kentucky's not there yet.
"There's no relaxing for us," Randle said. "We're not satisfied at all."
Nor is UK content to repeat the Fab Five's achievement. Randle said the Cats are "trying to make our own history." And though the Fab Five reached two NCAA title games, it never brought home the big trophy.
"That's what we're aiming for," sophomore Alex Poythress said. "Hopefully we can one-up them."