Kentucky Basketball: The Wildcats In The Context Of The 2014 Season

John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky's season so far has been a disappointment. Can it get better, or is a strategy change worth considering?

We've reviewed the Florida game on Saturday from a statistical perspective, but now we need to look at it in the context of the season. The game against the Gators represented one of those rare opportunities for Kentucky to improve its standing by beating a higher-ranked conference team. As we all know, that didn't happen — the Gators prevailed in a close game.

There has been a lot of conventional wisdom looking back at the game, which mainly says that Kentucky lost because the Gators were more experienced. Florida's experience allowed them to be competitive with Kentucky, and nobody would argue that Florida's players could have come in at 18 years old and beaten the same-aged Wildcats, except maybe the odd delusional Florida fan. What their experience provided was just enough of an edge in quality of execution, and just enough extra physical development, to overcome Kentucky's significantly better individual players by a very narrow margin. Which brings us to the question, "Can Kentucky be good enough by March to compete for the national title?"

What we have here is a clash of several factors:

  • History: Calipari's teams, other than last year, have managed to become very mature by March. But we cannot discount last year; it is a data point that deserves inclusion.

  • The competitive field: I think most people would agree that there are no teams out there that fit the definition of "dominant." Arizona, perhaps, could have claimed that mantle had Brandon Ashley not been injured, but since he was, no team looks dominant. There are now arguments that Florida is a favorite to win the NCAA Tournament, and if so, that should give us hope, not pause.

  • Expectations: Most of the Big Blue Nation (including me) expected this Kentucky team to mature faster than any other the Wildcats have had, perhaps excluding the 2012 national champs, because of their lofty recruiting rankings.

  • Reality: This 2014 team has matured at a pace comparable in some ways to 2010-11 and 2009-10. I think this deserves a little more exposition. 2009-10 was not very good at all in SEC play. They won all but two games, but consider these scores:

    • 85-75 over Ole Miss in Rupp Arena;
    • 66-55 over Alabama in Rupp Arena;
    • 81-75 in overtime over Mississippi St. on the road;
    • 58-56 over Vanderbilt on the road;
    • 68-62 loss at South Carolina;

    These are all "ugly" games like the ones the Wildcats won at Mississippi St. and Auburn this season. It's easy to misremember them now, and for a fact, Vanderbilt was a quality opponent. But the rest of them were more or less on par with this season. I don't think I need to expound on 2010-11.

It would be nice if this season's team found their game like 2011 did at about this point in the season, but that may not happen. Unlike that season, UK doesn't have Florida at home in the second half of SEC play, they get them in Gainesville in the final regular-season game. They don't get a ranked Vandy at home, either. Nor a talented Tennessee.

Instead, the Wildcats have no high-quality opponents left at home (Arkansas is just okay and is known to be a poor road team), and that's going to hurt. In addition to the Florida game, they must face a dangerous but ill-considered Ole Miss team on the road and a toothless South Carolina squad. So proving that the Wildcats have reached contender status will have to wait until Saturday, March 8th, when they go down to Florida and attempt to take the Gators down at home.

Reading into the crystal ball

Let's look at some possible outcomes and try to guess the seed, from highest to lowest probability, including the consideration that the SEC Championship game outcome is irrelevant to the seeding, and consider that Kentucky wins all its home games:

  • Kentucky wins all the rest of their regular-season games except at Florida. They reach the SEC Tournament final, and are 26-6 by Selection Sunday (assuming a bye in the SECT 1st round). I'd say UK winds up with a 3 seed.

  • Kentucky drops one game and loses at Florida. They reach the SECT final: 4 seed with 3 outside possibility

  • Kentucky wins out, reaches the SECT Final: 2 seed

  • Kentucky wins all but at Florida, loses in SECT second game: 4 seed

  • Kentucky wins all but at Florida, loses in SECT first game: 4/5 seed

  • Kentucky wins out, wins one game in the SECT: 3/4 seed

  • Kentucky loses two games including Florida, wins first SECT game: 5 seed

  • Kentucky loses two games including Florida, loses first SECT game: 5/6 seed

  • Kentucky loses all three road games, loses in first SECT game: UK would be widely considered on the bubble, but I think they'd draw a 6 seed.

Conclusion

Right now, Kentucky can probably forget about a #1 seed, and a #2 seed is pretty unlikely. The high probability is a 3 or 4 seed, which would put them right in the same spot as the 2011 team, forced to beat a #1 or #2 seed early in the tournament. That seemed really bad to me a few weeks ago, but at this point, I've become seed-agnostic. Kentucky is talented enough to get to the Final Four from virtually any seed, and if it can be done from the 4, it can be done from the 5 or 6. I wouldn't say that about a "normal" college basketball team, but this squad is not normal. At any moment, they could (and I'm not sanguine that they ever will, mind you) wake up and discover how to raise their game a notch, and a single notch is all it would take.

It is frustrating to see a team this talented underachieve, and we have to be honest with ourselves and say that up until now, the Wildcats have underachieved. They continue to have head-scratching lapses in execution, and although Calipari deflects the blame by constantly averring about that "this is what young teams do," at some point he needs to take responsibility for that. After all, this young team is his creation. Kentucky fans are not going to revise our expectations every year just because Calipari insists on recruiting young teams that can't or won't win the big ones, and Calipari can't constantly dodge responsibility by blaming those failures on youth.

If Calipari & Co. intend to continue on this great "non-traditional" experiment, he's got to produce results other than 20-win seasons. It stinks that the SEC is so bad that UK doesn't get a chance to play quality opponents very often, but it's no mystery that this league has struggled for the last few years to field competitive teams, and we can't do a thing about the conference schedule. It doesn't help matters when Kentucky ekes out victories over lesser teams rather than dominating them and winning comfortably, then loses their best opportunity to deliver a quality SEC win. Yes, I know league games are tough, but if this experiment is to work more than once or twice, we have to have results. I'm not abandoning the Calipari bandwagon by any means, but Kentucky basketball is not a place where you come to try new and different things only to have them fall short of expectations. Expectations are always going to be high here, and meeting them is important.

I think it's time to lose the "they are young" argument, it is getting tiresome. The freshmen are nearly sophomores, the sophomores nearly juniors, and so on. As Calipari pronounced before the Florida game, "It's time." Indeed, it is time — time to show results. Time to win games with style, and win the big ones as well as the small.  It's time to prove this is a team that can do more than just compete. Being competitive with Florida is great, but here at Kentucky, we don't expect to compete with the Floridas of the world — we expect to beat them.

I guess what I'm saying here is if we can't meet expectations by recruiting at an obscene level and sending the guts of the team off to the NBA every year, perhaps it's time that strategy is re-evaluated. The argument that Kentucky needs more continuity from team to team has more force after last season, and particularly after last Saturday in the context of the rest of this season, where experienced teams have come out on top against Kentucky in every major game but one.

This goes out to both coaches and team — It's time. Let's git 'r done. We should expect no less, and I know Coach Cal wouldn't want us to.

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