I hate comparing any team that I like to UConn, mostly because Jim Calhoun is a jerkface, but there’s no denying that the 2011 edition of the Huskies are one of the best examples of a team catching fire at the right time. With the Wildcats needing a little inspiration to turn around an otherwise frustrating season, do you think they could match Connecticut’s post-season heroics en route to a substantial tournament run? There are definitely enough similarities between the two teams to at least merit the discussion.
Going into the Big East Tournament two years ago, UConn was an uninspiring 21-9, with losses to unranked St. John’s and West Virginia. They finished the regular season only .500 in the Big East (9-9), and lost four of their final five games. It was rough going, to say the least, but they were able to rely on Mr. Clutch in the indomitable Kemba Walker. But regardless of how good people say your league is, only winning half of your conference games is a struggle for a team that otherwise expects to do big things.
Kentucky, meanwhile, has a completely different set of problems. Where UConn started their championship season unranked, the Wildcats were almost unanimously listed in the Top 3 of most media outlets. After disappointing all those who’d picked them to compete for a number one seed, a lot of folks feel burned by their lack of success. The Cats have only been ranked for one week after dropping out of the polls following some embarrassing early-season losses. It’s possible that folks feel burned by the Wildcats, who have massively under-delivered on promises they never made for themselves.
Also, while both 2011 UConn and 2013 Kentucky have some bad losses in common, there’s no question that the Huskies had better wins. With four regular-season wins over top ten teams, there was plenty of good momentum in Storrs to sort of cover up the more festering blemishes. Kentucky, meanwhile, had its best win the other day against #11 Florida, and its second-best win over unranked Missouri. Both at home. Fewer resume-building wins makes those losses to Georgia and Texas A&M really stand out.
Finally, UConn was able to keep one thing that Kentucky has had to do without: their Player of the Year candidate. Watching Kemba Walker operate during that 11-game winning streak was really something else. While Kentucky fans pretty unanimously dislike Coach Calhoun, and have no reason to root for UConn (especially after beating us twice in the same season), you almost have to like Kemba. He just gave everything he had every time he was on the court. Same thing is true, I think, for other fanbases’ feelings toward Nerlens. They may not like us, and that’s fine, but you have to admire a player that works as hard, and hustles as much, as Noel always does. But if Kemba was the spark that ignited that championship team, is Kentucky without a sparkplug?
I won’t say that Kentucky can’t turn it on like the Huskies did a couple years ago. They’ve already showed that they can win big games without Nerlens, and are definitely capable of making a substantial run, with the level of talent available on the team. And the late-season losses are fine when you consider that Kemba and Co. dropped four of their last five to end the season; maybe even those late losses will inspire the team to perform better in a “win-or-go-home” scenario. But while it’s possible to see a transformation in this team that could result in a championship, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Remember, UConn still had a 3-seed in the tourney; we’ll be lucky to get in. And no SEC tourney outcome could result in a top-4 seed. So watch some basketball tonight, root for favorites to beat bubble teams, and don’t expect Kemba Walker to come through that door.
If nothing else, at least the suspense makes the SEC Tournament more fun.