Cats' talent takes them to Final Four

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INDIANAPOLIS -- It was a reverse choke hold, but Marcus Lee could still breathe.

That's because it was an endearing gesture, not an expression of violence during Kentucky's  75-72 win over Michigan at Lucas Oil Stadium in the Elite Eight -- a victory capped by  Aaron Harrison's 3-pointer with 2.6 seconds to go.

Alex Poythress snatched freshman Marcus Lee (10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in 15 minutes) by the neck sometime in the second half after another big play extended the previously-anonymous-outside-of-Lexington forward's incredulous streak of ridiculousness that helped the program grab a slot in the Final Four in North Texas, where it will face Wisconsin on Saturday.

"Just natural reaction," Poythress said about the bear hug he gave Lee. "I'm just happy for him. Emotions get the best of you out there."

To most of us, Lee emerged from the abyss.

He'd averaged 5.7 MPG and 2.0 PPG prior to Sunday night. But his stat line against Michigan said, "Tim Duncan."

A Kentucky reserve is another team's starter -- star, really. John Calipari will compete in his third Final Four in four years because he could reach for Lee, a 6-foot-9 forward with a Sequoia's wingspan and the  No. 25 ranking in the 2013 class by RecruitingNation, when he needed someone to help in the post because  Willie Cauley-Stein was unavailable with to a foot injury. When John Beilein -- who had earned a slot in the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season, this time without big man Mitch McGary's services -- needed a boost inside, he called on Max Bielfeldt (85 minutes all season).

It's just different.

In the preseason, Kentucky had more talent than everyone else. And that was enough to justify the No. 1 preseason ranking that the Wildcats possessed. At the end of the Midwest Region's finale -- the toughest region of them all -- Kentucky just had more talent than everyone else. And that's enough of a factor to call the Wildcats strong contenders or even favorites to win the crown at Cowboys Stadium, now that this group has finally jelled.

"It's a process," Calipari said. "Every year, it's a process. Some guys get it quicker than others. It took these guys a little longer, and it took me a little longer to figure them out."

After the game, the new celebrity Lee took pictures with Kentucky supporters, high-fived assistant coach Orlando Antigua and then, he spoke to a group of reporters.

He had a piece of the net that he'd just snipped tucked into his Final Four hat. He smacked on a piece of gum.

He smiled and he discussed his dreams.

"This feels great," he said. "It's just a great feeling. Not at all [did I dream of this]. My dream was totally different. I dreamt about food last night."

In 2014, we're blessed with a variety of tools that allow us to understand elements of the game that were more difficult to capture before engineers and inventors turned our cell phones, tablets and laptops into data tanks. We can dissect games and plays in ways that weren't foreseeable a decade ago. We have Ken Pomeroy and Synergy. We have Jeff Sagarin, the RPI and ESPN's BPI.

We can talk about the game with the assistance of unique and detailed numbers now. They paint a more accurate picture of contests, players, coaching, schemes and trends. The per-possession movement has changed college basketball and statistics.

But the fundamentals of this game, the things that have always mattered, remain the same.

You take your five guys against his five guys and you play.

And in that scenario, the team that boasts the most talent usually has the advantage. When your five guys could all be first-round picks in this summer's NBA draft, you're probably in a good place.

Since Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to the NCAA title in 2003, six of the past 10 national champions have sent multiple players to the NBA in the first round of that summer's draft. Duke (2010) and Florida (2006) both possessed multiple players who were ultimately first-round picks in future NBA drafts. All 10 champs have had at least one first-rounder.

Every year, coaches scour the country for talent, NBA-level talent, if possible. They don't search for the guys with heart alone. They don't want a guy simply because he's energetic. They want players. Good players because this game is built around talent. Creating a Final Four-level team is certainly a puzzle. This Kentucky team's journey proves as much. But that's what they're all after.

Many say they don't like the idea of one-and-done prospects. Yet, they pursue the same prep superstars that Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina attract each season.

Why? Because it all starts with talent. And we always knew that Wildcats had more than the rest. They just waited until the postseason to show it.

"I think we did a good job fighting all game," Michigan's Nik Stauskas said, "and Kentucky, they're a great team and they deserve to go to the Final Four."

The early Kentucky hype didn't miraculously materialize. Calipari signed Julius Randle, a 6-9, 260-pound athlete who won a dunk contest last summer with an around-the-back slam. A man that large shouldn't climb that high. He also signed Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison, twins who automatically turned Kentucky's backcourt into one of the nation's best.

In all, he had six McDonald's All-Americans. No coach had ever signed so many. That's when the buzz began. If it all went well, we figured, Kentucky could end the year as the Kentucky team we saw Sunday in Indianapolis.

Kentucky has the most talent in the country at each position. Lee's emergence allowed the program to display its depth, too. The mess that unfolded between that preseason buzz and this valiant run is difficult to describe. This isn't the same team, though.

Those Wildcats lost to South Carolina and Arkansas. They couldn't finish against Florida or other top-25 opponents. But they've always had the advantage because they were never searching for talent -- only chemistry, flow and organization. All attainable traits that tend to come with maturity and experience.

In college basketball, however, you can't make a midseason trade to boost a roster.

So talent is always the most promising ingredient for a potential champion. It doesn't always work (See Kentucky last season). It didn't work most of this season. Kentucky struggled this year when it couldn't secure those elements that champions demand.

And there were no guarantees it would in the final weeks of the 2013-14 season, either. But it did. Now, we see the unbridled Kentucky, every bit the monster we assumed it could be when Calipari assembled this class nearly a year ago.

This season's drama made it easy to forget about Kentucky's potential and focus on its flaws. It made it easy to talk about freshmen and inexperience and immaturity. It made it easy to forget how much gunpowder the Wildcats possessed and the blast we might see if the fuse ever caught fire.

The flames from this group tore down Kansas State, Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan. Kentucky, finally, is who we thought they were: a team with unrivaled athleticism, skill, size and ability. But now the Wildcats have the other ingredients that bring that entire thing together.

Like good food. They just needed some time to cook.

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