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8-Seeded Wildcats Realize Missteps are Behind them at NCAA Tournament

On March 1, Kentucky lost to South Carolina. The Gamecocks were not a good team—they’re in the past tense, because their season is over—and at the time, neither was Kentucky. It was jarring when Aaron Harrison took to the post-game news conference and defiantly held on to a sliver, however tiny, of optimism.

“It’s frustrating to lose, but coming up, we know what we can do, and it’s going to be a great story,” Harrison said back then.

He knew then what everyone knows now: Teams are remembered for how they play in the postseason. Then, the way Kentucky had been playing—the loss to South Carolina was a byproduct of that apathetic fraction of the season instead of an outlier—had Kentucky fans worrying if another berth in the NIT was on the horizon. It was not, and here Kentucky is in St. Louis, a No. 8 seed preparing for No. 9 Kansas State on Friday night.

Andrew Harrison was asked Thursday if teams are remembered for how they they play in the NCAA Tournament.

“Yeah, definitely. It’s kind of sad, because some teams have a great regular season and seasons just don’t end like they hope so,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s the biggest part of college basketball: the tournament. So you always want to play your best, because it could be your last game.”

In the vacuum of Kentucky basketball, teams generally are remembered for postseason performance. The 2003 team that ran undefeated through the SEC was a remarkable team, and it’s remembered primarily for its loss to triple-doubling Dwyane Wade and Marquette in the Elite Eight. More recently, the 2011 team that was 9-7 in SEC play isn’t remembered for that at all; they made a surprise run to the Final Four, and that’s all that mattered. Finishing 1-7 on the road in league play is nearly irrelevant when the image of John Calipari embracing DeAndre Liggins as the Elite Eight win over North Carolina was in its final seconds is burned into the collective minds of Kentucky fans everywhere.

As this year’s Wildcats write their legacy in real-time, they’re having to balance that freedom with the associated pressure, and Calipari has warned them not to think too much about it because of the weight of it all.

“I’m trying to get them to focus,” Calipari said. “And again, when they make that kind of statement, they are not totally listening to me now. You must stay in the moment and play good basketball games. It’s what we do. It’s what we’ve done. It’s how we’re playing.”

Andrew Harrison didn’t look at the NCAA Tournament-as-mulligan scenario as a distraction. He simply knew it was there, looming off somewhere in an indeterminate future: that his Wildcats will be remembered for whatever happens next, not all the missteps and mini-triumphs they’ve had to get here.

Jon Hood is confident in how the team will perform now that the past is in the past. In his experience at UK, the fifth-year senior said each team that made an NCAA Tournament run—in order: Elite Eight, Final Four, national champion, NIT first-round loss—had a moment in time when everything clicked in to place.

He said Thursday he knows this team is where it needs to be to leave a lasting impression. The key now is to not stop.

“I think the SEC Tournament was the click,” Hood said. “I think the LSU game was the click, or the first time we could show it. I think it happened in practice. There’s always that click, but you always have to keep climbing.”

Story & photo by KY Forward's James Pennington in St. Louis. KY Forward's coverage of UK Athletics is sponsored by Republic Bank.