Was Kentucky’s Freshman Class Set up to Fail?
This year’s freshman class brought to play for the Kentucky Wildcats by coach John Calipari was being hailed in the pre-season as perhaps his best ever. Some were wondering aloud if it was anybody’s best ever. After all, the landed five players rated in the top 15 players in the entire class by scouting services such as Rivals.com. With Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, James Young and Andrew and Aaron Harrison, he literally has an entire starting five of McDonald’s All Americans who will all be first round draft picks after the season.
There was talk of UK possibly not only winning the NCAA Tournament but going undefeated while doing so. In Kentucky, there were t-shirts selling in their sports shops about the team going unbeaten. Then, two games into the schedule and those shirts were on the Clearance Rack.
UK lost to a tough, veteran Michigan State Spartans team that had stars who have been on that team for a long time. With Gary Harris, Keith Appling, Brendan Dawson and Travis Trice, the Spartans are battle tested. So nobody could really blame the young Wildcats for losing to them.
But then they struggled against the Cleveland State Vikings, so much so that they felt they were robbed by the officials or they may have won the game. Then they had a tough first half against the Eastern Michigan Eagles before winning by a rather mundane 15 points at home.
After that, the unimaginable happened. Kentucky lost back to back games to the Baylor Bears and the North Carolina Tar Heels. They have fallen from their lofty preseason ranking of #1 all the way to #19 and they have still not played the defending national champs, the arch rival Louisville Cardinals yet.
No matter what happens, they can already write off being Cal’s best team at Kentucky. That ship has already sailed. The Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist led team of two season ago only lost two games all season. One of those was in the SEC Tournament Championship game. This team could have four losses before they play their first SEC regular season. In fact, they could have five losses because they have a tough Belmont Bruins squad they had better not overlook. The Bruins beat the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, something UK could not do.
There was so much hype surrounding this team that anything they did was going to be too little. This team has plenty of talent and could very well go all the way to win the National Championship. But the bar was set so high for them, will that be enough?
Only in Kentucky would this even be a question. What fan base could give a damn whether the team won enough games as long as they win it all? Only one. Kentucky.
Kentucky is a different breed of cat. This is the fan base that ran Tubby Smith out of town. All he did was win an NCAA Tournament and take them to the Elite Eight three times in his first eight seasons. They rarely lost an SEC Tournament on Tubby’s watch or a regular season SEC title for that matter. But at UK, it wasn’t enough. The fans put up a “Fire Tubby Smith” website after they lost to the Spartans in the Elite Eight in 2005…in double overtime!
Calipari has the set bar so ridiculously high with three Elite Eights, two Final Fours and a National Championship in his first four years, and more lottery picks than he can count, that the only way to top what he’s done is to go unbeaten. With his method of scooping up as many “one-and-dones” as he can, then he’ll have to do it with true freshmen. They only way to get it done is to field an All-State team of incoming high school stars. With as many highly rated ones as he pulled in this year, one has to wonder if it’s possible.
The team from two season ago was very close. But that team benefited from a crazy good shot blocker in Davis, and a player lockout which kept some of the would be one and doners another season. To pull this off, it would seem that Kentucky will have to play as soft of a non-conference schedule as possible to get the team easy wins while they learn to play together and hope the gel in time for the SEC schedule. But that is not UK’s style.
The Wildcats want to go unbeaten and they want to beat North Carlina, Louisville, Indiana, and Duke along the way. Trying to accomplish all that with true freshmen is a bit too much to ask.
Jim Folsom is a regular contributor to http://www.bettingsports.com