So far, Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament bracket of doom has gotten considerably more friendly. That said, Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats had to do their own part to not follow the upset trail blazed against college hoops luminaries like Virginia and Arizona. Suffice it to say that Kentucky was not only lucky Saturday, the Cats were also good.

It wasn’t that long ago that your humble columnist suggested that it was still a matter of doubt whether Kentucky would reach the NCAA Tournament, much less star in it. Part of the reason for cynicism was the lack of production of Hamidou Diallo (above). But on Saturday, with the Wildcats still short-handed in the absence of Jarred Vanderbilt, and flummoxed by early foul trouble against a hard-charging Buffalo Bulls squad, Diallo surprisingly picked up the slack.

The talented freshman guard had struggled throughout SEC play. His minutes had been cut, and his production had suffered accordingly. He had reached double figures in scoring twice since late January, with 13 points against Texas A&M and 11 against Missouri. Suddenly, he emerged as a force for a Kentucky team that found itself needing a warm body as much as a star. Diallo slashed, defended and rebounded. His 22 points were one shy of his career high, and his eight rebounds were the most he grabbed in the 2018 calendar year. Kentucky followed his lead, pulling out a relatively solid 95-75 win to advance to the Sweet 16 for the seventh time under John Calipari.

Meanwhile, as great as Diallo was, he wasn’t the shining star of Kentucky’s backcourt. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was not as awe-inspiring as Collin Sexton. He wasn’t as attention-grabbing as Admiral Schofield. But this March, he’s making a pretty good case as to why he might be the Most Valuable Player in the SEC. His 27 points, six rebounds, and six assists were a second consecutive stat sheet-stuffing game — and many of his biggest plays came when Buffalo had trimmed Kentucky’s lead to a humble four or five points.

Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There are still shades of the Kentucky team struggled in early February. The young Wildcats (we have mentioned that they’re young, right?) hack players uselessly on a path to the basket or throw a cross-court pass 5 feet beyond an unmoving teammate. But meanwhile, the combination of luck and a coherent identity has changed the arc of Kentucky’s season. When UK defends, rebounds, and runs its offense through Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox, it’s not so bad after all.

Next up, a trip to the city affectionately dubbed as Catlanta against historic Cinderella UMBC or Kansas State; they play Sunday night. Kentucky’s last NCAA visit to Georgia came in 2012, when an Anthony Davis-led super squad blitzed Indiana and Baylor en route to the Final Four.

This Kentucky team won’t be mistaken for that team anytime soon. But at the same time, Kentucky’s path appears likely to feature No. 9 seed Kansas State, and the most dangerous potential opponent is Cincinnati. The result could be the same as in 2012.

Many in the media (present company included) bemoaned this Kentucky squad in February. There wasn’t a ton of hope in the air in Calipari’s annual trick of turning a sow’s ears into NCAA Tournament silk purses.

This year, maybe Calipari met his critics half way. Maybe his first trick was turning the most talented opposition into bystanders. If Kentucky can continue to hold up their part of the bargain by playing steady, team-focused basketball, another Final Four could well be waiting.