It is hard watching this Kentucky team struggle to hit their stride, and reach its full potential. Coming off a national title a season ago, things were trending skyward at an astonishing rate. Coach Calipari reloaded with a new set of NBA-ready talent and fans were ready for another run… Not so fast. Things don’t always work out so picture perfect for a defending national champion. Be it because of an all-new look, a target on its back, or downright back luck, defending national champions have rarely had an easy go of things in the last decade.
Discounting Florida which had two unreal back-to-back seasons; did you know you have to go back 12 years to find a defending National Champion that made it past the Sweet Sixteen the following year?
Take a look as most teams do make the tournament as a very high seed, but are upset before or in the regional semifinals.
1999-00 Michigan State Spartans (32-7): Next season 28-5 record, went into March as a 1-seed and lost in the Final Four to 2-seed Arizona.
2000-01 Duke Blue Devils (35-4): Next season 31-4 record, went into March as a 1-seed and lost in the Sweet Sixteen to 5-seed Indiana.
2001-02 Maryland Terrapins (32-4): Next season 21-10 record, went into March as a 6-seed and lost in the Sweet Sixteen to 7-seed Michigan State.
2002-03 Syracuse Orange (30-5): Next season 23-8 record, went into March as a 5-seed and lost in the Sweet Sixteen to 8-seed Alabama.
2003-04 Connecticut Huskies (33-6): Next season 23-8 record, went into March as a 2-seed and lost in the second round to 10-seed North Carolina State.
2004-05 North Carolina (33-4): Next season 23-8 record, went into March as a 3-seed and lost in the second round to 11-seed George Mason.
2005-06 Florida Gators (33-6): Next season 35-5 record, went into March as a 3-seed and won the National Title.
2006-07 Florida Gators (35-5): Next season 24-12 record, went to the NIT.
2007-08 Kansas Jayhawks (37-3): Next season 27-8 record, went into March as a 3-seed and lost in the Sweet Sixteen to 2-seed Michigan State.
2008-09 North Carolina Tar Heels (34-4): Next season 20-17 record, went to the NIT.
2009-10 Duke Blue Devils (35-5): Next season 32-5 record, went into March as a 1-seed and lost in the Sweet Sixteen to 5-seed Arizona.
2010-11 Connecticut Huskies (32-9): Next season 20-14 record, went into March as a 9-seed and lost in the first round to 8-seed Iowa State.
2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats (38-2): Next season ??
Every team but Florida in 2006 got worse the following year coming off a title. Of course, this should be expected. When you’re on top of the college basketball world the only place to go is down. But over the last 12 seasons, the defending national champion averages 3.5 more losses the following season.
Already Kentucky has reached that 3.5-more losses mark. However, two perfect case studies and modern examples of teams like Kentucky are Connecticut in 2011 and North Carolina in 2009. Teams often struggle mightily in years coming off a national title, and both UConn and UNC had similar problems that Kentucky has: a young talent-laden roster with limited production from upperclassmen.
Connecticut was blessed with a high-octane freshmen class in 2011, headlined by Andre Drummond and DeAndre Daniels, while North Carolina brought in a top-five class in 2009 with John Henson, Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald, and the Wear twins. Both of these teams, like Kentucky this season, relied heavily on the young talent to carry the way. It’s just not easy doing it.
Kentucky fans may be discontent with the season thus far, but there is still time to turn it around. But no matter what, don’t give the guys a hard time. History tells us coming back from a national title run is a feat most teams have a hard time dealing with, so bear with these Cats.