Over the course of the Calipari era, Kentucky fans have been spoiled with legendary moments, players, and teams. All of the Final Fours and title No. 8 were fun, but the journeys to get there were even better.
Each year, there was at least one game or moment that defined that season as a whole.
Let’s take a look year by year:
2009-10 – The John Wall Dance
The Kentucky program needed some swagger following the Billy Gillespie days, and John Calipari brought it back by signing the most electric recruit in the nation, John Wall. And boy did he make a grand entrance.
The John Wall Dance at Big Blue Madness told the world that Kentucky was back, and they were going to have fun with it. And that’s exactly what that season was.
Veteran leadership from Patrick Patterson combined with elite newcomers DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, and Wall. The team was a force to be reckoned with, and it should’ve translated to a national title. But it all started with the dance.
2010-11 – The Ohio State game
The team had its ups and downs throughout the year, but toward the end of the season, the Cats had it put together. They won an SEC Championship, and followed it up with an unexpected run in the NCAA Tournament.
It started when Brandon Knight saved the day against Princeton, and then they followed it with an impressive performance against West Virginia. In the Sweet 16, however, was when the magic happened. Ohio State, No. 1 overall seed. Victory.
The Josh Harrellson spike off Jared Sullinger’s chest, Brandon Knight’s clutch shot at the elbow, and the impressive defense on the other end of the floor on Ohio State’s game-winner attempt. It was an epic performance against the juggernaut of the entire tournament.
The North Carolina victory in the Elite Eight to push the Cats to the Final Four in Houston was awesome, but I’ll remember that season from Knight’s jersey flex following his game-winner against the Buckeyes.
2011-12 – No. 8
This was the easiest choice of them all. Cats bring home banner No. 8.
From start to finish, Kentucky was the best team in college basketball. They had one of the greatest single-season efforts of all time from Anthony Davis, heart from Michael-Kidd Gilchrist, leadership from Terrence Jones, shooting from Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, and stability at the point guard position from Marquis Teague.
The point differential in the championship was eight, but we all know it wasn’t even close. The way they steamrolled through college basketball, they did in the season finale. Teague throwing the ball into the sky as the final buzzer sounded and confetti fell from the rafters was an iconic image.
It was a special season that we’ll never forget.
2012-13 – The Injury
As happy as the 2012 season made us, we felt just as much disappointment in 2013. And it was all centered around one hustle play in Florida that single-handedly ended the season.
Nerlens Noel tore his ACL, and just like that, the heart and soul of the team was done. They were just starting to find their groove, and it erased in a second. Kentucky missed the NCAA Tournament and lost in the first round of the NIT to Robert Morris.
While he was playing, Noel was one of the most gifted defensive talents over the last decade. The timing on his blocked shots was impeccable, and he was just as skilled when it came to steals. His 12-block performance against Ole Miss was one of the best single-game defensive performances I’ve ever seen.
We got to see the start of Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein’s careers, but Noel was the show, for both good and bad.
2013-14 – The Shot(s)
It started with 40-0 talk, and after losses piled up, they were soon just worried about doing enough to make the tournament. After a disappointing loss in conference play, we laughed when Aaron Harrison told us we’d have a story to tell when it was all said and done. Little did we know we’d see one of the most incredible NCAA Tournament runs of all time.
The Wichita State game in the second round was back-and-forth, right down to the wire. I sweat through two shirts watching it in my living room. James Young hit a dagger, and Fred VanFleet missed a game-winner opportunity. It was one of the most fun and exciting games of the season.
And then we had the game-winner against Louisville.
And the game-winner against Michigan.
Dakari Johnson said it best: “(Aaron’s) got big nuts, to be honest. He can’t even walk right now.”
Harrison became a tournament legend with his back-to-back-to-back game-winners, and we’ll love him for it forever.
2014-15 – The Pursuit of Perfection
Like 2011-12, what a season from start to finish. It started with the Bahamas beatdowns, and then continued throughout the year.
They finished with a perfect regular season at 31-0, embarrassing teams defensively. They were unstoppable, as teams had no idea how to attack Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein in the paint.
Kentucky was up 41-7 against UCLA at haltime, and it was just one of many mindblowing performances throughout the year. With the platoon system, as the opposition got tired, the Cats would have ten fresh and just-as-capable legs on the bench ready to finish the job at any moment. There were no answers.
Until the Wisconsin game, when Kentucky’s dream of becoming the first 40-0 team in history came up just short in the Final Four. It was devastating, but it still can’t take away from just how special that team truly was.
2015-16 – SEC Championship
The highlight of this season was easily centered around the best backcourt in college basketball, Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray. The floor general and bow-and-arrow specialist dominated each night, including Murray’s perfect season of knocking down a three in every game he played.
The sweetest of them all may be his dagger to clinch the game against Texas A&M in the SEC title game.
Skal Labissiere was a major disappointment in the frontcourt given the hype, and the team’s lack of talent in that area ultimately crushed them in the tournament. They fell to Indiana in the Round of 32, Calipari’s first finish before the Elite Eight since he got to Lexington.
Still, though, Ulis cemented himself as one of the best point guards to ever play at Kentucky and Murray was arguably the top shooter in all of college basketball. There were some incredible moments between the two.
2016-17 – North Carolina Pt. 1 and Pt. 2
The North Carolina game in Las Vegas was unforgettable, as it was one of the best single-game performances for a Wildcat in school history. Malik Monk was the best player in the world that night, and nothing could stop him from getting buckets.
No, seriously. Watch the highlights. He was stupid good.
Like the previous year, Kentucky had the best backcourt in America with Monk and De’Aaron Fox. Bam Adebayo was a stud, Isaiah Briscoe was turning the corner, and Isaac Humphries was proving to be solid in the paint. It made for an extremely fun season.
The first UNC game set the tone for the next matchup, where whatever team won the game in the Elite Eight was likely the future NCAA champion. And that held true. Both teams were playing the best basketball of anyone in America, and unfortunately for the Cats, the Tar Heels came out on top in round two.
When you look at the grand scheme of things, those two games were easily the biggest and most fun of the year. And it solidified the scoring legend of Malik Monk.
2017-18 – Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s unexpected breakthrough
We expected the Quade Green show going into it, and then it became all about Shai. The team was desperately seeking someone to take over each night, and more often than not, Gilgeous-Alexander was that guy.
Beyond him, there were question marks.
Kevin Knox was the best scorer, but he was inconsistent and struggled on defense. PJ Washington was dominant in the paint at times, but it was only when he wanted to be. Jarred Vanderbilt was a stud on the floor, and we loved his personality, but his health wasn’t reliable. Etc.
The one consistent was that Shai was going to give it his all and lead the team to the best of his abilities every time he stepped out on the floor.
2018-19 – ?????
Will it be Reid Travis’ veteran presence? Keldon Johnson’s passion for the game? Tyler Herro’s sharpshooting? The Duke game to open the year?
All I know is it’s going to be a fun season.
What were your defining moments for each year?