“No, I had a little swag last year, cuz I knew. This team is not as tough as last year”
Cal knew and we all knew that this team, as good as they can be, will not be as tough as last year. However, the goal at the end of the season remains the same. Expect a few more bumps along the road, but this year’s Cats have more room to grow than any contending team this season, and will be there at the end of March with as good of a chance as anyone. After three games, Kentucky has already faced two of their tougher opponents and were without their starting point guard. Many expected the Cats to lose one of those first two games before they had even lost Ryan Harrow to illness. Given the circumstances, the Cats fared pretty well in their two early tests with almost an entire new team of freshman, and positives were able to be taken out of both games. Jarrod Polson showed poise in clutch moments against Maryland, and Kyle Wiltjer showed he can be a primary scorer. Against Duke, Alex Poythress and Nerlens Noel emerged as offensive stars. In the third game, nine players saw significant minutes and five scored in double figures as the Cats rolled against Lafayette exactly as they were expected to.
We know better than to compare this year’s team to last, but many have compared this team to the 2011 team that lost six conference road games before making a run to the Final Four. The 2011 team, like this year’s team, also lost in November to a quality opponent on a neutral site (UConn in Maui). But unlike this year’s early season loss to Duke, there weren’t many positives to take out of the blowout loss to Kemba Walker and UConn in Maui.
“That was a shellacking,” Calipari said after the November, 2010 loss to UConn. “We were outplayed, out-coached, out-everythinged.”
Even in Calipari’s magical first season in Lexington, there was plenty of ulginess in the Cats’ first three games:
2009-10 First 3 Games:
Morehead State (W, 75-59)
Miami (OH) (W, 72-70)
Sam Houston State (W, 102-92)
Kentucky committed 24 turnovers and made just 4-of-19 shots from 3-point range in Calipari’s first game at UK vs. Morehead State. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and company fell behind by 18-points to Miami (OH) in Kentucky’s second game that season, and escaped with a win as Wall hit a game-winning jumper in the final seconds. In the third game, Calipari’s team of future NBA stars gave up 92 points to Sam Houston State. Although the 2009-10 season ultimately ended with a bitter loss to West Virginia in the Elite Eight, Kentucky was arguably the best team in the country that season despite their November woes.
The 2009-10 team did not face tests as tough as Maryland or Duke this early in the season, but looked sloppy in wins and played down to their competition. The 2010-11 team failed miserably that November against eventual champion UConn, but this team held their own against a veteran Duke team.
This year’s team (or Indiana, or Louisville, or any other 2012-13 contender) can not be compared to the 2011-12 Wildcats, but a strong case can be made that Calipari’s young team is already ahead of where they were in his first two UK seasons at this stage. If this team develops as those teams did, Kentucky may or may not be the best team in the country, but they will almost certainly be the most feared team in the country at year’s end. Indiana and Louisville may end up as top seeds, but when it comes down to a one-and-out tournament at the end of the year, Kentucky will be the team that most pray to avoid.