After ten games, the Kentucky Wildcats are a somewhat surprising 8-2. The two losses came against top 25 caliber opponents Michigan State and Baylor and both games were on neutral courts. One can see similarities in both losses; lack of maturity, questionable effort in spots, defensive and offensive breakdowns, inability to close the gap in key moments. All of these are common in young, inexperienced teams.
The fan base was a little irked after the loss to Baylor, I am included in this, but now a few days have passed I think cooler heads are now rethinking a few things.
This isn't new with a John Calipari team. All of his young teams have somewhat have struggled early on and then something "clicked". Many fans may have either forgotten this or maybe looked past it due to the overwhelming hype that surrounded this team before meaningful games were played.
Let's take a trip down memory lane and see when it's clicked for Cal's ‘Cats in the past.
Record Before it Clicked: 9-0
When it Clicked: December 9, vs. #14 UConn at Madison Square Garden. Kentucky won 64-61
Scenario: This was Cal Year One. It had been a long time since Kentucky fans were downright giddy about a season. Tubby's tenure ended in bad feelings and lackluster performance. Billy Clyde ushered in a culture of controversy, standoffishness, and losing. Calipari came in with guns blazing and a number one recruiting class.
The John Wall class was brash, in your face and most importantly, talented. They struggled to find themselves early in the season, having to defeat Miami (OH) 72-70 at home on a John Wall prayer. They also struggled to beat a bad Stanford team at the Moon Palace Resort in Cancun. Their biggest win to date came when they took down #10 North Carolina at Rupp Arena. But the moment that John Wall and his ‘Cats made their impact was on basketball's biggest stage in New York City.
Jim Calhoun and John Calipari were old foes from the east, and UConn was a top 15 team from the much ballyhooed Big East. Kentucky was down 29-23 at the half but came storming back, thanks to John Wall. His coming out party was against Kemba Walker and Jerome Dyson, two top-notch guards.
Wall finished the night with 25 points, six steals and two assists. He was perfect from the free throw line and shot 10-16 from the field. There was no question that he and this Kentucky team were for real. Demarcus Cousins also had a big game with 10 points and 10 rebounds, and Patrick Patterson was his reliable self with 16 points.
The ‘Cats took down a team from the Big Bad Big East.
Final Record and End of Season Result: 35-3, Lost to West Virginia in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
Record Before it Clicked: 11-2
When it Clicked: December 31, at #22 Louisville Cardinals. Kentucky won 78-63.
Scenario: This Kentucky team was struggling to find an identity. Their starting center, Enes Kanter, had been ruled ineligible at the beginning of the season by a questionable decision by the NCAA. Terrence Jones was the go-to guy early on, but he exhibited moodiness and occasional malaise. Brandon Knight was the top point guard in the country but he was still finding his way as John Calipari's floor general. At times he looked brilliant, like when he scored 24 points against Washington in the Maui Invitational. The next game he looked dreadful. In a 84-67 butt kicking by UConn in the final of the Maui Invitational, Knight had six points and five turnovers.
The ‘Cats also lost on the road to North Carolina 75-73. They also had impressive wins along with their losses. They took down #23 Notre Dame in Freedom Hall and they blitzed Indiana by 21 in Rupp Arena.
But it all came together against Louisville in the first matchup at the Yum! Center. Knight ran the team with a cool efficiency and outgunned Louisville star guard Preston Knowles. But the star of the game was Billy G. leftover Josh Harrellson. Harrellson was forced into the starting lineup after Kanter was named ineligible. He had yet to really find himself, but he did just that against the hated Cardinals. He had 23 points and a whopping 14 rebounds in the beat down. Some of that was due to the fact that Jones was double-teamed and was able to find Harrellson as an outlet.
Kentucky went into a hostile environment and beat a top 25 rival by double digits.
Final Record and End of Season Result: 29-9, Lost to UConn in the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament.
Record Before it Clicked: 1-0
When it Clicked: November 15, vs. #12 Kansas in Madison Square Garden. Kentucky won 75-65.
Scenario: It didn't take long for this bunch, did it? Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were the hotshot recruits, but it was Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, crafty sophomores, that led the ‘Cats past the veteran Jayhawks in the inaugural Champions Classic.
Jones had 15 points and seven rebounds while Lamb piled on 17 points, going 3-5 from three land, in a game where every Kentucky starter scored in double-digits.
With the score tied at the half, Kentucky took off and never looked back. Sure, there were times when they looked sloppy and young, and Teague had more turnovers than assists, but this team was special right from the jump. Every starter played over 30 minutes and the bench was non-existent, but Cal didn't need to use it.
The Wildcats were the team to beat from that point forward.
Final Record and Season End of Season: 38-2, defeated Kansas in the NCAA National Championship game.
Record Before it Clicked: 14-6
When it Clicked: January 29, at #16 Ole Miss. Kentucky won 87-74.
Scenario: Kentucky hadn't really won a quality game all season. They were defeated by #9 Duke, Notre Dame and #4 Louisville. They lost to teams like Texas A&M and Alabama. They weren't really getting better and they couldn't get over the hump. They didn't have much of a chance to do so in a down SEC. Many pointed to the game at Ole Miss as the one to look for improvement.
Nerlens Noel came up huge in Kentucky's first win against a ranked team. His 12 block, four foul game is stuff of Wildcat legend. Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Ryan Harrow all put in double-digit scoring efforts to help Noel defeat Marshall Henderson and the Rebels in front of a crazy crowd in the Tad.
But disaster struck as Noel tore his ACL and ended his season four games later at Florida. Kentucky was on a five game winning streak when their best player went down in a heap after a signature hustle play. The team never really recovered in John Calipari's worst season as a head coach.
Final Record and End of Season: 21-12, lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.
This season is still to be determined. The Wildcats have the opportunity to have their "click" game in the next two weeks. Boise State, North Carolina, Belmont and Louisville are all on the slate; and they are all very good basketball teams. Kentucky answered the bell against the Broncos, but three tough teams still remain.
This current Wildcat team has the talent of 2009 and 2011, but they show the inconsistency and immaturity of 2010 and 2012. Each team had one special player that brought it all together: in 2009 it was John Wall; in 2010 it was Brandon Knight; it 2011 it was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist; in 2012 it was Nerlens Noel. Noel was lost to injury and the team went down the tubes; some would argue that it still would have gone down the tubes with or without Noel, but we will never know.
Which player will take this team on his back and be the leader? Julius Randle is the early candidate, he certainly has the most talent, but like most young players he hasn't really found his voice. John Wall was special, as was MKG, they had their voices the moment they stepped foot on campus. It took Knight a little while but he found his. Noel was just hitting his stride before disaster struck.
The next two weeks may prove to be crucial for this young team. It's time to step up. It's time to for someone to bring this team together and make them click. Was last night against Boise St. that game? What do you think?