On the cusp of one of the greatest seasons in men’s college basketball history, the No. 1 and undefeated Kentucky Wildcats (38-0, 18-0) owe much of their success to stars like freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns, sophomore guard and leading scorer Aaron Harrison, and All-American junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein.
The Wildcats and head coach John Calipari have run roughshod over the country with 38 consecutive victories, and two more, one over the No. 1 Wisconsin Badgers in the Final Four and potentially another over either No.1 Duke or No. 7 Michigan State in the title game, will put them right alongside the 1975-1976 Indiana Hoosiers, the last men’s team to complete a perfect season.
Towns has further cemented his status as one of the most heralded big man NBA prospects with a solid tournament, while Harrison and Cauley-Stein could also be lottery picks this year thanks to their spectacular play.
But what about the rest of Kentucky’s loaded roster? Through excellent recruiting, Calipari has arguably assembled a well-oiled and complementary group of college all-stars, many of whom have flown under the radar for much of the season despite helping the Wildcats reach historical heights.
Here are the three unsung heroes that have helped the Wildcats get this far and could help them reach even further Saturday night in Indianapolis.
Trey Lyles, F, Freshman
Calipari's tall, athletic forward should not be forgotten in a stellar freshman class that includes Towns, lights-out shooter and guard Devin Booker, and guard Tyler Ulis. Lyles may play a major role against a stacked Badgers frontcourt of Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker, especially if Towns or Cauley-Stein get in some foul trouble.
Lyles is third on the team with 5.3 rebounds per game and has averaged 8.7 points in 22.8 minutes this season. The numbers don’t necessarily scream impact player, but Lyles’ size and hustle on the defensive end have actually earned him more minutes per game than Towns and Booker. And if the battle with Wisconsin comes down to free throws Lyles is far more reliable than Cauley-Stein at the charity stripe, at 72.7 percent to 61.7, respectively.
Lyles showed during the regular season that he’s capable of picking up where Towns and Cauley-Stein leave off. Both starting big men wound up with four fouls against No. 18 Arkansas back on Feb. 28, but Lyles pulled through with 18 points on 8-for-10 shooting with four rebounds in the 87-84 victory. He is capable of stepping into the passing lane, and starting a fast break, which could be crucial against a Badgers squad that is often cautious of turning the ball over.
Lyles is a workhorse and his draft stock has soured in recent months.
Dakari Johnson, C, Sophomore
No one player lost more in playing time after Towns' arrival than Johnson. The seven-foot sophomore out of Brooklyn saw his minutes decline from 16.5 to 14.1 per game, as well as his points, rebounds, and blocks.
Possessing little polish to his offensive game, Johnson’s still serves as one of the better strong and weak side post defenders for Kentucky and his length and shot blocking ability could wreak havoc on Kaminsky and Hayes inside.
Johnson’s averaged only 0.6 blocks a game, but he’s swatted away six shots in the Wildcats last three victories, and racked up 11 games with two or more blocks throughout the season.
Andrew Harrison, G, Sophomore
It’s very possible Andrew is tired of the comparisons to his twin brother Aaron, but rather than griping about his lack of shots, the older twin has become the Wildcats full-fledged floor general. He’s second on the squad with 3.6 assists per game and still ranks fourth with 9.2 points. Like the rest of Kentucky, most statistics are watered down given how many scoring options the team actually has, but if anything Andrew deserves credit for spreading the ball out nicely among the starters and keeping teammates happy throughout the season.
Harrison’s also shown mature leadership beyond his years this season. He scored 10.3 points and took 9.7 shots per game last season, but deferred to Booker for the betterment of the squad. Now he’s taking three fewer shots per game, giving Booker the opportunity to knock down 41.1 percent of his three-point attempts and now Kentucky’s on the verge of its third straight trip to the national championship game.