One of the most poignant and penetrating observations that John Calipari has ever made came almost unnoticed in his post-game interview following the Kentucky Wildcats loss to the Connecticut Huskies in the National Semifinals:
It just ends. It's done.
Don't you hate things that "just end?" I know I do. You spend six months building up to something, and just like that, it's over and there is nothing more to do but get back to life. There is something about the jarring abruptness, the irrevocable finality, that is a shock to the system. Even now, three days removed from the event, many Kentucky fans are still in a kind of mourning for the season that "just end[ed]." It sometimes feels like we are sorting through the wreckage of a violent collision or natural disaster, trying to make sense of it all.
None of this is to say that the season was a disappointment -- it wasn't. Yes, it was disappointing to fall short of the goal of a national championship, but this is the closest Kentucky has been in a long while, and that in and of itself is quite satisfying. It is also quite satisfying to have defeated one of our major rivals along the way, and see so many of the others fall far short of their expectations. Schadenfreude still lives here, at least once in a while.
It seems that many of us just aren't quite ready to move on yet, and it seems reasonable to linger awhile in the season that was. Right now that's particularly easy to do while the team takes stock of itself and begins work on deciding who will return and who will move on to the next level -- except, of course, Josh Harrellson who is a senior and must move on, as well as the NCAA-ineligible Enes Kanter.
In a way, this highlights both the beauty and the curse of college basketball, one of the things that makes it so interesting. In The Sillamarillion, J.R.R. Tolkein's anthropological prelude to his Lord of the Rings fantasy world, it is written that Eru Ilúvatar (God or the Creator of the Universe) gave man the "gift of mortality," where the Elves were immortal. College basketball is like that. The teams are "mortal" in the sense that their lives are very short, much shorter now in the era of "one and done" than in the decades before where players hung around for three or more years, and unlike NBA teams who can have very long lives built around superstar players.
It gift of mortality of a college team's life and it's annual renewal with new members that add a great deal of spice to the college game. True, it would probably be still better if we could extend those lives back out to three years or so, but I don't hold out too much hope for that happening, although it could eventually. There has never been much love for the "one and done" rule anywhere but in the NBA Players Association, and until they agree to change it, it will remain as it is.
The threat of an NBA lockout will affect how many coaches advise their players on their next move, just as UCLA's Ben Howland suggests. No doubt it will affect Calipari's advice to his charges in some form or other, although that does not mean that they will not leap ahead and do it anyway. Still, there are other motivations. Brandon Knight could quite possibly go to summer school, come back next year and graduate in the spring or summer, completing a four-year college degree in just two years. Doron Lamb is not currently found on either the Draft Express or NBADraft.net mock drafts, and neither is DeAndre Liggins or Darius Miller, although Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Enes Kanter all figure prominently in or near the draft lottery.
In addition, there will be recruiting. Calipari is not likely quite finished with the 2011 class, as good as it is, if anyone other than Harrellson and Kanter are leaving the team. Even if they are, I'd be surprised if he doesn't try to add at least one more player, and several names have surfaced as well as others who have been recruited by Kentucky but have not yet pledged to a school.
So we do have things to look forward to, as well as the new players arriving in the summer and beginning informal workouts, from which there will no doubt be much news and plenty of time for discussion. But right now, at this moment, many of us are still gathering our thoughts from the sudden demise of the 2011 season. The impact with reality still stings, still shocks the system, and like getting back from a long vacation, it takes a while before you get back to full speed.
But we'll get there.