There have been uncounted trillions of pixels darkened across the Bluegrass State and beyond talking about the excitement and expectations of John Calipari's ascension to the throne of the most storied college basketball program in America. But as we have seen with the last two coaches, and as William Shakespeare so eloquently put it, "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown."
So what would success look like for John Calipari next year? While it is true that he is bringing in arguably the best recruiting class in modern college basketball history and returns some senior leadership as well as the mighty Patrick Patterson, the expectations for Calipari's first year as coach are pretty much of the charts high. But we have seen as recently as 2004-2005 that great recruiting classes don't always turn into what we hope they will, and that a surfeit of young but talented players do not ensure success.
I think what the Big Blue Nation should consider is what kind of season would qualify as a success for UK next season. Obviously, with the huge influx of talent and return of Patrick Patterson, it would be hard to stomach anything less than a regular-season SEC championship or a second-place finish followed by an SEC tournament championship. But then what? With pundits placing Kentucky in various places from second to the high twenties in the land pre-season, there is a lot of variation of opinion about where UK ranks on the national scale.
But no matter where the pundits come in, the real opinions that matter are those of a Kentucky fan base who has suffered through four consecutive years of up-and-down expectations and disappointment after disappointment. In fact, discounting the Las Vegas Invitational championship of last year, it has been five years this March since UK celebrated a tournament championship of any kind, the longest such strech since before Adolph Rupp coached the team. From 1993 to 2005, UK enjoyed great success in the SEC and NCAA tournaments, but those years now seem very far in the rear-view mirror.
UK seems poised to compete for the SEC championship this year as it has not in recent years, but there are plenty of obstacles in their way, from a Tyler Smith-led Tennessee Volunteers team to a stronger Florida team to a returning Devan Downey and Dominique Archie at South Carolina, not to mention a resurgent Ole Miss, solid LSU and a dangerous-looking Mississippi State team. No matter how good the Wildcats look on paper, they will be the least-experienced team from top to bottom that UK has fielded in many years. Combine that with sky-high expectations with John Calipari as the head coach, and you can see why I wonder where the combination of fan's heads in the clouds and young, inexperienced but supremely talented feet on the court will lead.
While I doubt that UK fans will turn on and rend Calipari should the Wildcats come up short of whatever their expectations are this year, there is a danger that fans could fall prey to nation media naysaying if UK has some unexpected losses. The unacceptable early-season losses to Gardener-Webb and VMI all but doomed the two seasons of Billy Gillispie, as those types of miscues simply cannot be forgiven a UK coach versus such poor competition at home. I don't expect that to happen under Calipari, but there will likely be some surprises and disappointments along the way to whatever fate awaits next year's team -- glory, ignominy, or something in-between.
In the end, calling for tempering of expectations is not something that would work right now. Kentucky fans fully qualify, by UK historical standards at least, of being considred long-sufferening and hungry for the excitement to return to the UK program. John Calipari has unquestionably accomplished that with his stellar recruiting class and complete domination of the local "buzz" via the magic of Twitter and his sheer energy and willingness to be seen and interviewed by media of all stripes. Intentional or not, Calipari has been a major part of raising the expectations of UK fans and has done precious little to allow reality to intrude. Of course, the coach still has plenty of time to do that as the season approaches in earnest, and generating all this excitement and elevated hopes now will be easier to manage later after the initial euphoria has begun to wear off a bit.
So what say you, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation? What does a successful first season look like for John Calipari and the new-look Wildcats? An SEC championship and a Sweet Sixteen? A Great Eight? A Final Four? Where do you draw the line between success and disappointment?