March 1, 2014: South Carolina– 72, (17) Kentucky– 67.
Raise your hand if you hadn’t given up after the lowest point in the 2013-14 season. Didn’t think so.
A 22-9 (12-6 SEC) record– capped off by a 19-point blowout at the hands of Florida– to finish the regular season is a far cry from the lofty (albeit unrealistic) preseason predictions of college basketball’s first ever 40-0 season. The Wildcats’ early season losses to (2) Michigan State and (20) Baylor could have easily been excused as growing pains of an unexperienced team. Even the loss to (18) North Carolina was understandable, as it was the first true road test for a team led entirely by underclassmen.
Then, there was the 2-0 season sweep by Arkansas. There was the 82-87 defeat in Baton Rouge. There was the eventual three losses to Florida in as many tries. Worst of all, there was the 5-point loss to South Carolina, the perennial bottom-dwellers of the Southeastern Conference. After four months of disappointing basketball, Kentucky’s national title hopes, and thus, it’s season, looked all but over.
But, then came the SEC Tournament. Even though the ‘Cats lost by a single point to Florida (after a botched play in the game’s closing seconds by Kentucky’s James Young) in the final, there was no denying that something had changed. Kentucky was a different basketball team.
With a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s most brutal region, the Wildcats’ miraculous postseason run was set to begin. Soon came the 78-76 thrilling upset over previously undefeated Wichita State. Then came Aaron Harrison for three… again… and again. The newly “tweaked” Kentucky squad made a run nobody expected all the way to the Final Four, only to lose in the national championship game to the UConn Huskies.
Every year, it seems that after a run like that, the bad part comes just as soon as the celebration ends: all of our best players leave for the NBA. In fact, the last time Cal’s ‘Cats reached the national title game, all five starters declared for early entry into the NBA Draft. It seemed only inevitable that the same would happen to this team. But, then again, something was different. Thanks to the adversity faced during a disappointing regular season, the 2014 national runners-up experienced something the 2012 national champions did not. In fact, even the Elite Eight-bound 2010 Wildcats, who lost five players to the NBA Draft’s first round, gave fans more than of which they could have dreamed heading into the NCAA Tournament. But, just like the 2011 team, the bitter taste of disappointment had left these players hungry.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson, Andrew Harrison, and Aaron Harrison– all players with sure-fire NBA Draft potential– came back to school not because of what they achieved, but because of what they didn’t. One would think a run to the Final Four would silence all doubt and critics, alike. But, as Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb learned after a less than stellar regular season three years ago, it doesn’t. All five players were still labeled with question marks as the NBA Draft’s entry deadline approached. All five players were still being scrutinized for what they didn’t accomplish during the regular season. But, more than anything, all five players still had unfinished business back in Lexington.
Now, with the addition of a star-studded recruiting class that includes Karl-Anthony Towns, Jr. (No. 2 in 247Sports’ 2014 class rankings), Trey Lyles (No. 17), Tyler Ulis (No. 20), and Devin Booker (No. 22), John Calipari’s only expected problem next season will be managing minutes between his nine McDonald’s All-Americans and the rest of his key returners. Players will surely be forced to make adjustments (Alex Poythress is predicted to make the move to small forward, just as Patrick Patterson did before him in preparation for his jump to the NBA), but the goal remains the same: win a national title.
In the words of 50 Cent, “Sunny days wouldn’t be special if it wasn’t for rain. Joy wouldn’t feel so good if it wasn’t for pain.” The Big Blue Nation’s jubilation felt from returning six key players (including Marcus Lee) from last season’s magical postseason run might not have happened if not for the disappointment felt from the regular season. As the old adage goes, good things come to those who wait.