Kentucky basketball may not have experienced a season with higher highs and lower lows than 2013-2014. Sky-high expectations crumbled into regular season struggles, and it was only after most had written them off that the team rose from the ashes all the way to the National Championship game. Now, with four players returning, and only two to go pro so far, Calipari won’t have to start from scratch next season. U mad, college basketball?
In fact, looking back, everything that happened this season was kind of the opposite of what we expected, and by the end, Kentucky’s story became its critics’ worst nightmare. Follow my line of thinking…
Preseason: “The best assembly of talent to ever take the court. There’s no way they’ll lose a game!”
Reality: Kentucky was 22-9 in the regular season, a far cry from the 40-0 daydreams. After the loss at South Carolina, the vultures circled Calipari, gleefully unleashing all their pent-up hate and writing his coaching obituary. I’m pretty sure that’s the polar opposite of what we thought would happen. (Don’t worry, it gets better.)
Postseason: “They’re just an eight-seed. There’s no way they’ll make it past Wichita State.”
Reality: Whether or not you believe in the tweak, Kentucky was a totally different team in the postseason. Once Andrew started passing, the Cats started rolling, losing by only one point to #1 Florida in the SEC Tournament Championship, at that point an improbable run all its own. Still, it wasn’t enough to impress the Selection Committee, who shafted the Cats with an 8-seed. Almost everyone picked Wichita State to oust Kentucky in the second round (high five, LL Cool J!). For the first time I can ever remember, the Cats were underdogs, and by the Final Four, their story was so sweet that even the coldest of UK-hating hearts couldn’t help but give Aaron Harrison props when he hit his third game-winning three in four games. It was a run so improbable that the vultures had to eat crow.
Offseason: “Whatever, they’re all going pro. More proof that UK’s just a one-and-done NBA factory.”
Reality: I’m still not over the loss. I have all of the tournament games TiVo’d, but haven’t been able to bring myself to watch them yet. Still too raw, still too painful. But, as the draft decisions come in, I can’t help but see the silver lining. Had Kentucky beaten UConn, you have to think that some of the players who decided to come back would have gone pro instead. Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson both cited winning a title as a primary reason they’re coming back, and had UK won in Dallas, their stock would have been sky high, the void full, and the allure of returning to school probably not as bright. Although their decisions are still pending, I think the same could be said for the Harrison Twins. If they are looking for a reason to make the jump, that probably would have been it.
Yet, what happened happened, and as a result, two freshmen are coming back (hopefully four), along with two sophomores, which means we may finally be able to take the quotation marks off “veterans” when we talk about next year’s team. If the Harrison Twins decide to come back (if, if, if), it’ll be the first time ever at Kentucky that Cal will have a returning point guard. Regardless, this team will not only have experience, it will be fed by the burning, churning drive to get number nine.