When Reid Travis committed to play his final season at Kentucky last week, I made a statement that day that frankly, I didn’t think was all too controversial: With the addition of Travis, Kentucky was officially the team to be in college basketball entering the 2018-2019 season.
Again, I didn’t find that comment to be all too controversial. With Travis now in the fold, UK simply possessed the best combination of skill, athleticism, depth and experience of anyone in the country. And apparently I wasn’t alone in thinking that. Within the next 24 hours of my initial comment, ESPN tabbed the Wildcats the favorites in 2019. So too did CBS. And within the last 24 hours, Vegas came full-circle and named Kentucky the team to beat next season.
So yeah, the Wildcats are going to be good. Realllllllly good.
Of course, as you might imagine not everyone agreed. Just as soon as I sent out the tweet below, stating that the Wildcats were the best team in college basketball entering next season, I got brush-back from fans from all sorts of other fan-bases across college basketball. They all basically shared the same sentiment, which went a little something like this: “Oh, you media guys are all the same. Of course you love Kentucky. You overhype them every off-season, and they still only have one national championship to show for it.”
Naturally, I had a few follow-up thoughts to that. One, Kentucky really is the most talented team in the country entering next season. That isn’t hype; it’s pretty much indisputable. The Wildcats’ 10-man rotation features seven McDonald’s All-Americans and nine Top 40 recruits. No one in the country has anywhere close to that talent. I also can’t help but laugh at anyone saying “Kentucky ‘only’ has one title under Calipari.” As if winning them is the easiest thing to do in the world.
With the additions of Reid Travis and Ashton Hagans in the last week, there is no other way to put it: Kentucky is the best team on paper in college basketball entering 2018-2019, and should be the preseason favorites to cut down the nets in March
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) June 20, 2018
Still, as I saw more of the blowback, I couldn’t help but think one thing: Because of all the preseason hype (which will only grow as we get closer to tip-off), the 2018-2019 campaign might just end up as the most important of the Calipari era at Kentucky. Again, national championships aren’t guaranteed, and crazy things happen in March. But with the roster Kentucky has, there really isn’t much excuse if they don’t make a legitimate run at a national championship. It’s also fair to wonder, if the ‘Cats can’t win a national championship with next year’s roster, will they ever get a second one under John Calipari?
Now before we dig into this, I want to again reiterate a super-important thing: It’s not easy to win national championships. I don’t care who your coach is. I don’t care how much talent you have. They are really, really, REALLY hard to win. While John Calipari routinely gets the most flack for “only” having one title, let’s never forget that many of his contemporaries “only” have one as well. That includes a bunch of Hall of Famer’s or soon to be Hall of Famer’s like Jim Boeheim, Bill Self and Tom Izzo. Same with historical figures like Jerry Tarkanian and Lute Olson. Heck, if Dean Smith – a guy many consider to be one of the best coaches of all-time – “only” got two titles in 36 years at North Carolina, doesn’t that tell you just how hard it truly is?
It does, but it won’t make things any easier if Kentucky doesn’t win it all next year.
Understand, there have been previous off-seasons where the hype has been unjustified. There have also been other seasons where there was an obvious flaw in the team that you knew could lead to Kentucky’s eventual downfall (shooting in 2010, experience in 2014, you name it). Looking at the roster, there is none to really speak of next season.
Furthermore, not only are there no excuses, but couldn’t you also argue the exact opposite? That over the last few months, just about everything that could go Kentucky’s way has gone Kentucky’s way? It seems so.
Think about it for a second. Since last season ended, here are the things that have gone “right” for Kentucky: They got commitments from what ended up being the two highest-ranked players in their 2018 recruiting class (E.J. Montgomery and Ashton Hagans), an insane haul to pull off so late in the recruiting process. Hagans was able to successfully finish his coursework, reclassify and enroll in summer school. Three key pieces off last season’s team (P.J. Washington, Quade Green and Nick Richards) all elected to come back to school, rather than going pro or transfer. They’ve started to clean up in 2019 recruiting as well (even if it doesn’t ultimately matter for this upcoming season). And of course, they inked one of the best grad transfers in the history of the sport, a two-time, All-Pac 12 performer in Reid Travis.
Seriously, outside of that brief (albeit unlikely) window where we thought Kevin Knox would come back to school, what has actually gone “wrong” for Kentucky since the end of the season? Outside of a bad hair day or two from John Calipari, it’s hard to think of much. And because of all that good juju, it has left Kentucky in the place that I mentioned off the top: With the most talented team in college basketball. Frankly outside of Kansas, I’m not sure there’s a team that’s even close (others like Gonzaga and Duke may have more talented starting lineups, but no one with across the board skill like Kentucky has).
By the way, I haven’t even mentioned another important factor: Kentucky’s wild run of success heading into the 2018-2019 season coincides perfectly with their foreign tour to the Bahamas. You think those extra few weeks of practice and games won’t benefit the Wildcats heading into next season? It couldn’t be more valuable.
Add it all up however, and it leads to a zero sum game for Kentucky entering 2018-2019. This team is justifiably hyped and with no obvious holes. It also means that – barring something shocking between now and the end of next season – there will be no excuses for this team either. They are a legitimate favorite to win the national championship, and if they’re unable to, it’s fair to ask if it will happen again anytime soon.
Add it all up and that’s also why the 2018-2019 season might just go down as the most important season of the John Calipari era at Kentucky.