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Kentucky Basketball: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

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The taste of losing is sour, especially when hopes were so high. Too high?

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

It's always such an empty feeling.

Whether it happens after an NCAA championship (just once in my Kentucky lifetime) or somewhere short of that, the days become vacant without another basketball game to look forward to.

This one, though, was probably the toughest ending of the John Calipari era. The 2013 loss to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT was shocking and embarrassing, but we'd all pretty much given up on that team once Nerlens Noel went down.

And I'm certainly not minimizing the shock of losing to West Virginia in the Elite Eight in 2010, nor of the incredible streaks running out against Connecticut in the Final Four – twice!

People also tell me we lost to Wisconsin at about this time last year, but I must have erased my hard drive because I don't remember that. (Except maybe a faint memory of repeated shot clock violations. And something about not having lost a single game up to that point. But that's impossible. Clearly, just a bad dream.)

What I think I'll always remember about this 2015-16 team is Big Blue Nation's insistence that it was better than it really was. I could tell that from all the reader comments on this site. (And I suppose there will be comments for this one, too.)

"Really like this team . . I think we can do it . . . looking good at just the right time . . ."

For Big Blue Nation, the season runs 12 months. Excitement for next season always begins right after the previous season ends, when we get a chance to absorb the power of another Cal recruiting effort. Even though we barely know these kids, the hype has preceded them. It's been that way since John Wall (and probably, before that, with Alex Groza).

So it was with this year's team. We were told that Skal was all that, ready to step in and replace the departed Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles and Dakari Johnson.

As a result, I guess, the season began to crumble in early December, when Skal had just one rebound in a loss to UCLA (a loss that, in retrospect, was even more devastating than at the time). He was being pushed around, stripped of balls, muscled out of the way.

And then his scoring vanished, too. Going into the UCLA game, he was averaging nearly 13 points a game and UK was undefeated. Over the next 10 games, he averaged four points a game and Kentucky lost four of those games. By the time of the shocker to Auburn in mid-January, it was clear the wheels were wobbly.

But then, in that Auburn game, Derek Willis scored 12 points and maybe a new savior was showing up to salvage the season. Hope sprang anew, which it almost always does in Big Blue Nation.

Willis had some double-figure games, including 18 against Missouri, 25 against Tennessee. But he had an ankle problem, too. And there were games when he disappeared. Sometimes, watching the UlisMurray Show, it seemed the ball always rotated to the other side of the court. Was Willis not insisting on the ball? Was he not working hard enough to go to the right spot? Was he in pain? Was he not as confident in his game as we had all become? Or maybe Cal and Ulis weren't as confident in him?

Then there was Alex Poythress. Why can't he do it every night? And there was Marcus Lee. Why can't he stay out of foul trouble? And there was Isaiah Briscoe. Why can't he shoot?

And that's how we limped into the tournament: a glimmer of Skal here, of Poythress there, of Willis every once in a while. Yet, UK fans seemed convinced this was enough of a package to go all the way.

Not just us. Seth Greenberg liked us. Doug Gottlieb liked us. Vegas liked us!

The NCAA tournament is cruel because it really is the ultimate one-and-done. You lose by a few points and you go home, never knowing how it might have turned out had you just survived that last one. Kind of makes you know how Wichita State felt a few years ago, or Michigan or Louisville or Notre Dame, or other teams Kentucky has tossed to the side of the road.

But after seeing Indiana decimated by North Carolina, the feeling – my feeling, anyway – is that it would have happened to the Cats more sooner than later.

And now the normal ritual around here begins. Who will go and who will stay? And, always more important, who's coming? This new group of recruits has more hype, and more promise, than almost any Cal team except maybe the 2014-15 bunch. I imagine whispers of 40-0 will begin to emerge as we go into the summer.

Have we learned, from the Skal Labissiere experience, to hold our fire until all these can't-miss high schoolers actually play a college game? Probably not. That's part of the special-ness of the Kentucky basketball nation.

They love the Cats. They worship at the alter of John Calipari. And, as I've discovered since coming here 10 years ago and writing for A Sea of Blue since December, you really know the game. It doesn't take you long to separate the diamonds from the zircons.

You don't get delusional. After 2,200 wins, eight national titles, 17 Final Fours, 49 SEC championships and countless great All-Americans, you know the difference between contender and pretender. And you don't let your hopes and dreams blur your vision.

Not usually.