03/30/2012 11:11 pm ET

Kentucky Enters Final Four As Favorite After Season Of Improvements (VIDEO)

On the eve of the Final Four, it's not exactly going out on a limb to pick Kentucky to cut down the nets in New Orleans. Actually, with Kentucky being selected as the favorite by oddsmakers, it's absolutely nothing like going out on a limb. Picking John Calipari's fresh-faced and fleet-footed Wildcats is more like being rooted to the ground. If you want to feel the rush of a risk -- of that tree limb giving even more beneath your feet with each step -- then pick Kentucky's intra-state rival Louisville to win it all.

Kentucky arrives in New Orleans as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament with a 36-2 record. Long-limbed and unibrowed freshman Anthony Davis was just named AP Player of the Year and is the presumptive No. 1 selection in the upcoming NBA Draft. Alongside him, and quite possibly right behind him in the draft, is fellow frosh Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. This dynamic duo forms the pumping adrenal gland of a team that overwhelms opponents with its youthful exuberance.

From the opposition's bench (or perhaps that limb you stepped out on when you bet on Louisville) it's hard to conceive of a time when the Wildcats weren't the runaway favorites. However, the reliance on these two teenagers -- as well as freshman Marcus Teague and sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrance Jones -- made Kentucky seem like less than a sure thing in November.

When the AP preseason rankings came out Kentucky didn't receive a single first-place vote. Sixty two of the 65 first-place votes in that poll went to the University of North Carolina. Coach Cal's Cats did earn the No. 2 spot in those rankings but nary a nod for the top spot. The three votes that didn't go to Harrison Barnes and company were credited to Ohio State (1) and the defending champion UConn Huskies (2).

At that point, Kentucky was considered unproven enough that SB Nation college basketball editor Mike Rutherford included his "UK as national champion" pick among a list of "Bold Predictions" for the season. "If the Cats can get just semi-consistent post play," Rutherford hypothesized, "then they should claim their 8th national title."

By posting 23 points (with eight dunks) and 10 rebounds in his collegiate debut against Marist, Davis showed that he just might be capable of filling the team's needs in the post. Despite Davis' impressive reveal, Kentucky's season-opening win didn't leave everyone impressed. A lackluster first half left Calipari talking about there being 100 teams that could beat Kentucky.

Up next was a sterner test for the precocious SEC ballclub. Kentucky traveled to Madison Square Garden to face Kansas. After the Wildcats used another second-half surge to overpower the Jayhawks with nearly as much ease as they did Marist, ESPN basketball analyst Andy Katz felt compelled to address the prevailing opinion -- in part based on Calipari's own statements -- about this team.

"Can we please get a cease-and-desist order on this notion that Kentucky is not a very good team yet?"

It didn't take long for that notion to be tabled for good. When Davis sealed a win over UNC with yet another block, he solidified Kentucky's position as the most feared team in the land. Even after Indiana notched an upset win over Kentucky by way of a buzzer-beating three pointer in the very next game, the spotlight on the team hardly dimmed. The Wildcats would steamroll through the remainder of the regular season without another loss, eventually reclaiming the No. 1 ranking for good. On Selection Sunday, they were awarded the No. 1 overall seed despite coming into the NCAA Tournament directly off a loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Conference Tournament final.




Kentucky's Road To The Final Four