This one hurt, this one hurt... badly. Maybe not 1997 vs. Arizona bad. but it hurt pretty badly and the wound is still fresh; alas, we must move forward. The Kentucky Wildcats were seemingly on a run of destiny that could only end with another NCAA Tournament championship banner hanging in Rupp Arena. The young Cats had just capped off a run for the ages and what some would argue was the best four-game run in tournament history, and especially for the "Fab Five version 2.0."
Before it all started, however, the idea of ending the season with anything other than championship #9 would have been something of a disappointment; we could not have been more wrong, on multiple occasions this year. First there was the 40-0 chatter, and again, Cal never said this team was going to do it or even could, simply that he would love to coach a team that did it (and he said it years ago, the narrative was drudged up and went viral). Having said that, it got into the forefront of virtually everyone’s minds to begin the year. Hindsight is always 20/20, but looking back it was unfortunate that this group of kids was already branded with the task of "perfection or bust" before they stepped out of their prom limos and onto a college campus.
Having said that, it is what it is. The popular antagonist opinion is that Coach Cal cannot win embracing the one-and-done strategy, and the failures of the 2013 Cats were just the tip of the iceberg for the coming failures. As the 2012-13 season got underway, the struggles of that team became evident, starting with the beat down by Notre Dame in South Bend. Sportswriters, talking heads, rivals and pundits everywhere began typing their "I told you so" articles and had them saved just waiting for the right time to hit "enter." They would show everyone that 2012 was a fluke, that it was a one-off and that the Big Blue Empire was more house of cards than a dynasty in progress.
Then came this season. Early failures were rare enough to be excusable, and the team finally "made its bones" by defeating Louisville in Rupp Arena. Then came the SEC season where losses to Arkansas and LSU on the road were troubling enough. But after a terrible loss at hapless South Carolina, it seemed the sky was no longer falling, it had actually collapsed. The universe that is Big Blue Nation seemed to be imploding on itself, as all galactic giants eventually do. No need to mention names, but it seemed like there were at least FORDE (pun intended) negative articles proclaiming the impending doom as being inevitable and obvious to everyone not wearing blue tinted glasses.
Then something happened, a "Tweak" if you will; Coach Cal realized he had made some mistakes in his coaching and went about the business of rectifying them immediately. The story being told is that Calipari went as far as being rolled into practice inside a coffin only to burst out of it proclaiming "we ain’t dead yet boys!" Whether that actually happened or not may never be known, but the point is that none of these kids had given up and Cal had not either; it was time to go to work.
Coach Cal started letting his talent assert itself on the court and it paid immediate dividends when the Cats handled LSU in the opening round of the SEC Tournament; the sound you heard after that game was a collective "Hmmm..." from around the nation. After a win vs. Georgia and a last second slip on the floor loss to #1 Florida that "Hmmm..." turned into a collective sigh of worry; nobody wanted to see UK below their name, or even in their bracket, for that matter.
There is no need to rehash the run in detail; suffice to say it started by handily beating a solid Kansas State team, then continued by ending the perfect run of a fine Wichita State group that was dealt a raw deal by the Selection Committee, then crushing and I mean crushing the hopes of a city about 78 miles northwest of Lexington, and finally shoving a stake through the proverbial heart of B1G country with kill shots by Aaron the Assassin.
Kentucky probably allowed a great shot at #9 to slip through their hands in a game that saw Connecticut outrebound the Cats, and keep Kentucky just enough out of rhythm to prevent them from getting over the hump. Even when UConn was reeling in the second half, the Cats just could not make the shots that they had been so good at manufacturing the four games prior. The result was a worthy UConn team pushing the right buttons to give UK just enough rope to hang themselves. It hurts, it still hurts, and it is going to hurt for a while, Big Blue Nation.
What I do anticipate happening is for hindsight to be 20/20 once again. We will all realize that this group was very special; not because they won games, but because they turned a tide of hatred and negativity (some of it from its own fan base, and yes, my hand is raised too) into arguably the story of the year in college basketball. It also provided validation of one of the best coaches to roam the sidelines to let him do what he does best; attract the best talent and develop them into their brother’s keeper.
Calipari's ability to take this team from an overhyped preseason #1 to nearly bubble talk and back up to a few free throws away from a national title is nothing short of miraculous. Most rational sportswriters will agree that there is no longer a question; John Calipari is no longer a coach that recruits and rolls the ball out there (which was never true), he is truly a great coach and a great recruiter. In a world where only the bottom line matters, let us look at some of the bottom line results for Coach Cal at UK:
152 wins in 5 years (30/yr. average). That is more than Coach K, Pitino, Boeheim, Donovan, Izzo and Roy Williams in that span, only Bill Self has more.
18-3 in the NCAA tournament, that’s more wins than anyone in that span, and the closest to him of the aforementioned coaches is 12 wins.
4 Elite 8 appearances, only Donovan has done that.
3 Final 4s in 5 years, more than anyone in that span.
1 NCAA Tournament title.
17 NBA draft picks in 4 years and he’s looking at likely 3 to 5 more this year depending on the Twins (this will give him an average of 4 per year).
The truth of the matter is we are witnessing a dominant run and the only black mark on this half-decade came because Nerlens Noel hustled too hard while playing at the arena football court that Florida plays on. Kentucky fans will be sad for a while and they should be, but eventually the sun will come out and we will all realize that it is still pretty darn good to be a Wildcat and chances are we will be right back in the same position we were in on Monday well before most teams are. As Coach Cal loves to say, enjoy the ride.