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What a difference a few months can make. Remember back in October when preseason magazines hit the shelves and most of them had this region as ground zero for basketball dominance? Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky were ranked by many pundits as the top three teams in the country and it harkened many fans back to the ‘70s and ‘80s when all three schools were consistently national contenders.
Fast forward a few months however, and things have changed. Indiana and Louisville have both had good seasons and both are poised to make deep tournament runs. IU looks to be a lock for a number one seed and a similar seed is not out of the question for Louisville either.
However, for Big Blue fans, the season took a nose dive early on and the defending national champion Wildcats may not even make it into the field of 68 come Selection Sunday. Many seemed shocked by the decline, but Kentucky’s downward spiral is not hard to explain.
First, all the preseason hype was centered around 18-year-old kids. Yes, the edited You-Tube videos of the incoming freshmen were impressive, but sometimes we fail to consider the competition. Alex Poythress looked great dunking over some 6’1” junior from Whatever County high school in Tennessee who probably works part time bagging groceries and whose basketball future will be limited to church league in his hometown.
Even those impressive AAU highlights are taken from competition where winning and losing takes a backseat to individual accomplishments. Those AAU teams are all about giving individual players exposure to college and pro scouts and solid, fundamental defense is rare at best. UK fans got excited because we were fed a constant stream of edited tapes of highlights.
To me, Poythress is the kind of kid who could be an All-American basketball player in college, but he needed time to adjust to the college game as do most freshmen. At UK, such a luxury did not exist. Kentucky lost one player to graduation and five to early departure to the professional ranks last season. That translated to UK relying on four 18-year-old kids for the bulk of the playing time this year.
The results have been telling. When they visited Notre Dame, they went up against a team full of seasoned veterans. UK’s 18-year-olds were matched up against 21-year-olds. While UK’s players may have more athletic ability, raw talent and potential – Notre Dame’s players were simply stronger, more experienced and fundamentally sound. Kentucky’s inexperience has haunted it numerous times this season.
Despite Kentucky’s early season rankings as high as No. 3 in the nation, the Cats have struggled. Coach John Calipari watered down the schedule for his young team, but even that hasn’t helped. In fact, it’s hurt. Kentucky’s current 20-9 record is unimpressive, and even more so considering it has come against one of the weakest non-conference schedules in UK history, and in an extremely sub-par conference. Kentucky has two games left in the regular season, on the road at Georgia and at home against the SEC’s lone excellent team – Florida. Even if Kentucky splits, the Cats are looking at 10 losses and a miserable RPI.
So if UK fails to make the NCAA Tournament, here are some discussion points just for fun:
•While UK fans railed against Tubby Smith for his lack of recruiting and at least a couple of early exits in the NCAA, one thing Tubby never did was take UK to the NIT.
•After winning the championship last season, Cal had replica championship rings made up and he gave at least one to hip-hop artist Drake. Some fans said it was excellent marketing to help brand UK as the hip program. I wonder if Cal will have Drake fitted for an NIT ring?
•Will UK’s absence from the NCAA tournament keep Ashley Judd from a U.S. Senate run? The Hollywood actress and Tennessee resident relies on UK games to remind us that she has Kentucky connections. She might attend the NIT games, but she won’t get the national exposure she’s used to.
•Despite double-digit losses, an NIT appearance and possibly the horror of watching U of L or IU cut down the nets in the NCAA tourney, will Calipari still try to convince UK fans that the only night that really matters is NBA draft night?
•Next year we got a new shipment of 18-year-olds coming in. Some UK fans are already talking about an undefeated National Title team. Just remember, these kids are currently making highlight reels against grocery store baggers.