For the previous five years, Kentucky basketball fans have used the early season – or in the case of this year, the utterly ridiculous early season – to gauge the potential of each superbly talented, yet painfully young squad John Calipari has recruited to Lexington. While Kentucky fans, since Adolph Rupp was educating the nation on the intricacies of the fast break, love to discuss, disseminate and dissect the immediate future of UK’s hardwood hopes, the tenor of the conversation has been slightly altered by the arrival of the Age of Cal.
With an ever-rotating roster of top 20 high school talent, putting a date on when "this Kentucky team will reach its potential" has become almost as entertaining as watching each of Cal’s five teams reach the basketball equivalent of pre-adolescence, adolescence, and finally, manhood.
Of course, each of Cal’s teams has grown and developed at different rates, but it is in October and November when fans take to talking (seriously) about how good "this team can be?" And for each of Cal’s first five UK squads, the answers have been disparate, determined by early-season teamwork (or a lack thereof), undeniable athleticism (or a lack thereof) or palpable chemistry (or a lack thereof), among other team or individual characteristics:
- The 2010 squad led by John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and company, were good from day one. Everyone knew it, especially the teams that were annoyingly toyed with throughout the season by the deadly combination of speed and power that team possessed and used so effectively.
- The Brandon Knight-led Final Four squad of 2011 waited until February before gelling, learning roles, and imposing its considerable will on the opponent.
- The 2012 team was special from the day it was formed. Whether it was Big Blue Madness, the Blue/White Game, or the first few non-conference contests of that memorable season, even the most ardent anti-UK college basketball fan could see that the team was blessed with talent from aft to stern; anchored defensively in the middle by the USS Anthony Davis, along with perpetual motion personified (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist), with perimeter protection provided by UK’s Bazooka Joe, Doron Lamb. That title team was great. From. Day. One.
- 2013 … NIT … Never clicked … Never fulfilled … Hopefully, never again.
- And then there is the 2014 team. A team ranked No. 1 in the country by every pre-season poll with an ounce of credibility, and one which nearly every so-called expert thought had the goods to grace yet another Final Four. And in the most circuitous of routes (filled with pot holes and curve balls), last year’s squad gave credence to many of those pre- and early-season predictions by going on an historic run while owning with authority the biggest stage in college basketball.
But this team, people; my goodness.
Coming into this Bahamas excursion, most Kentucky fans were expecting to see talent, even if it was raw. At best, Kentucky fans were expecting glimpses of greatness. Glimpses mind you, not stretches of mid-season level play orchestrated by the young and experienced alike.
It’s not as if Kentucky fans have forgotten the importance of experience. Many fans point to the presence of senior Josh Harrellson and junior (and senior) Darius Miller, and junior Patrick Patterson, as well as senior DeAndre Liggins, when talking about the success of their respective teams. But did anyone see this train coming down the tracks?
Even though this squad is widely projected as the No. 1 team in the country, it is still surprising, shocking really, that UK seems to be clicking on at least seven of its eight cylinders (and I’m sure a bit disconcerting to the Wildcats’ future opponents). But stacked is stacked -- Athletic? Beyond belief (at every position). Smartly aggressive? Check. Lengthy? Are you kidding me? Offensively multidimensional? You bet. Defensively dominating? It’s almost unfair. Deep? More than ever. Swagger? Delightfully so. Unselfish? Without a doubt. Playing with great chemistry? Fuhgit about it.
Whether it’s the "old guys" schooling the "new guys" on what it takes to win as a team, or some magic dust Cal sprinkles on the team’s breakfast, this Kentucky squad has the look of being a machine; a nationally hated, but universally admired winning machine ready to plow through much of its schedule by simply showing up.
They are that good, even without two major contributors, Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles. But how good, or great, or special, can the Cats become? Will they evolve and grow? Will they get better or will they, as the season progresses, rest on their laurels?
The answer to those questions will be determined by what beats underneath those highly stylish unis, because the skill, coaching and mind boggling depth are all present and accounted for. Having been a fan for more years than I care to remember, I’m barely smart enough to know not to put too much stock into pre-season games. But this team shouts championship caliber with its every dribble, lob, dunk, sheer athleticism and collective hardwood skill set.
Even considering the jaw-dropping physical attributes of this team, though, the most impressive early-season characteristic of these Wildcats may be its willingness to allow others to shine; the willingness to make the extra pass is something Cal is quick to preach from his pulpit, and something this collection of talent has obviously taken to heart and executed to near perfection.
At the risk of portraying myself as a gushing school girl breathlessly awaiting the arrival of her knight in shining armor … November, we await thee with bated breath, and in the words of George Strait: Run.
Thanks for reading and Go Cats!