Welcome back to the countdown! Two of the most beloved teams of the John Calipari era end up in the fourth and third positions. As you will see, both teams have similar faces. John Calipari went from a surprise young team in one season to a history making veteran team the next.
#4- The Improbable Run
Record: 29-11 (12-6 SEC)
Roster: Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Marcus Lee, Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson, Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins, EJ Floreal, Brian Long, Todd Lanter, Jon Hood, Sam Malone, Jarrod Polson
Postseason: Lost to UConn in the national championship game
Signature Wins: vs. #6 Louisville, vs. #2 Wichita State, vs. #5 Louisville, vs. #7 Michigan, vs. #12 Wisconsin
Post Season Player Accolades: Julius Randle- SEC Freshman of the Year, First Team All SEC, SEC All Freshman Team; James Young- SEC All Freshman Team; Willie Cauley-Stein- SEC All Defensive Team
Why They’re Here: After the conclusion of the dismal 2013 NIT season, Kentucky fans were primed for a return to the postseason and the national spotlight. John Calipari hauled in his, at the time, best recruiting class to date. 5 star players Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young, Marcus Lee, Dakari Johnson, and late surprise addition Julius Randle made up the nucleus, while hometown boys Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins rounded out the class.
There was a lot of talk about this team going 40-0 with the elite freshmen and the return of Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, two players that had the potential to break out that season.
But things didn’t go as planned. The undefeated talk was over by November 12th as the ‘Cats suffered their first loss 78-74 to Michigan State in the Champions Classic. They had just one win against a ranked team all season long and that came in Rupp Arena against the hated Louisville Cardinals.
Things just didn’t mesh. Julius Randle was a stud, but outside of him, the rest of the team was wildly inconsistent, including sophomores Cauley-Stein and Poythress. The fans couldn’t figure it out and neither could head coach John Calipari. Everyone knew the talent was there, it just was not coming together. Unfortunately, the Twins took the lions’ share of the blame which was unfair to them.
The bottom fell out on March 1st as the ‘Cats lost at a dismal South Carolina team 72-67. Cal was ejected and the fan base was on the verge of mutiny. Another NIT was not out of the question. But after the game Aaron Harrison announced to the world that the season was not over and it would have a great ending.
After a win against Alabama and a loss to Florida, it was time for the SEC Tournament. In his genius, Calipari announced to the media that he made a “tweak” to the offense that was going to change everything. And boy did it.
Whether the tweak was real or a motivational ploy is up for debate, but there was no doubt the team had changed. They went 2-1 in the SEC Tournament, losing 71-70 to eventual #1 One Overall Seed Florida Gators. UK earned an eight seed in the NCAA Tournament, but the fanbase and the team felt that they were about to go on a run for the ages.
After easily dispatching of Kansas State in the first round, the Wildcats defeated undefeated and top seeded Wichita State in one of the best NCAA tournament games any of us had seen. They then got a rematch with a veteran laden UofL team that was defending NCAA Champion. After going down big early, the ‘Cats clawed back behind the play of the Twins, Randle, and the lockdown defense of Alex Poythress. Kentucky beat their rival for a second time that season.
Things were going well but UK lost defensive stopper Willie Cauley-Stein in the Sweet Sixteen win over the Cards. Next up was National Runner Up Michigan where Aaron Harrison hit the first of his two game winning threes in a run to the national title game. Next came Wisconsin in the Final Four and again Aaron Harrison hit a three to win the game for the ‘Cats.
By the time UK reached the national title, we all felt they were on a collision course with destiny. But fellow upstarts UConn had different plans. They were riding a wave of their own behind Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Kentucky had been underdogs the entire tournament until now, then all of a sudden the moment seemed too big for them.
They lost to the Huskies but the legend of this team was solidified in their improbable run. The only key contributors that declared for the NBA draft were Randle and Young, The rest of the team was ready for a return trip to the NCAA Final Four and a real chance at going 40-0.
#3- The 38-1 Team
Record: 38-1 (18-0 SEC) SEC Regular Season and Tournament Champions
Roster: Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Willie Cauley-Stein, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Tyler Ulis, Dakari Johnson, Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins, EJ Floreal, Sam Malone, Brian Long, Tod Lanter
Postseason: Lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four
Signature WIns: vs. #5 Kansas, vs. #6 Texas, vs. #21 North Carolina, at #4 Louisville, vs. #21 Arkansas, vs. #8 Notre Dame
Postseason Player Accolades: Karl-Anthony Towns- First Team All SEC, SEC Freshman of the Year, SEC All Freshman Team, Second Team All American; Willie Cauley-Stein- First Team All SEC, SEC All Tournament Team, SEC Tournament MVP, Consensus First Team All American, Defensive Player of the Year; Andrew Harrison- SEC All Tournament Team; Aaron Harrison- Second Team All SEC, SEC All Tournament Team; Devin Booker- Second Team All SEC, SEC All Freshman Team; Trey Lyles- SEC All Freshman Team; Tyler Ulis- SEC All Freshman Team
Players Drafted: Karl-Anthony Towns- #1 to the Minnesota Timberwolves; Willie Cauley-Stein #6 to the Sacramento Kings; Trey Lyles #12 to the Utah Jazz; Devin Booker- #14 to the Phoenix Suns; Andrew Harrison- #44 to the Phoenix Suns; Dakari Johnson- #48 to the Oklahoma City Thunder
Why They’re Here: When the Harrison Twins announced that they were returning to Kentucky for a second season, fans knew that this team was going to be successful. To add to all of the returning veterans, Calipari once again added a top notch recruiting class highlighted by intriguing big man Karl-Anthony Towns.
The ‘Cats were dominant from the jump. Fans got an early glimpse of the team as they watched the guys dominate pros in an international trip to the Dominican Republic. Both Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein looked like brand new players. The Twins looked as if they took the next step in their development and the freshmen, particularly Devin Booker, looked ready to compete right away.
In order to give all of his players a chance to play, Cal implemented a platoon system. He would rotate a new group of five players from time-to-time. The first team consisted of the Twins, Poythress, WCS, and Towns. That team alone was good enough to be the best in the country. But once that team wore you down, a second platoon of Ulis, Booker, Lee, Johnson, and Lyles came in and continue the onslaught.
Their first real test came in the Champions Classic against the Kansas Jayhawks. Kentucky left no doubt winning 72-40. The nation was on notice- this team was serious about going undefeated.
As they continued to roll through competition, Alex Poythress suffered a torn ACL in practice. Lyles was promoted to the first platoon team. Things seemed to be going just fine, but the loss of Poythress would come back to haunt them later in the season.
The best thing about watching the team was witnessing the maturation of Towns. He came in as a big man that liked his outside jumper a bit too much and shied away from contact. Cal and Kenny Payne transformed him into a beast. Towns became a dominant force and eventually was the top player selected in the NBA Draft.
As the season progressed the ‘Cats saw few challenges. But every once in awhile, like in a February game at LSU, they would face adversity but they always came out on top.
The team was the #1 overall seed heading into the NCAA Tournament with their undefeated record on the line. After three relatively easy wins to start things off in the postseason, Kentucky faced their toughest test to date in the Elite Eight against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. This was the game in which Towns showcased how dominant he was as the Irish had no answer for him down low. Kentucky prevailed 68-66 and it was onto the Final Four against the Wisconsin Badgers.
I don’t think anyone saw a loss coming. The Badgers had two NBA caliber players in Frank Kamisky and Sam Deckard, but Kentucky had a team full of guys like that. But Deckard was unstoppable as no player could defend the talented forward. This is where the loss of Alex Poythress was felt the most. He was answer for Deckard.
A missed shot clock violation by Wisconsin and three straight uncharacteristic shot clock violations by Kentucky doomed the team in the end. The dream was over. The ‘Cats lost to the Badgers 71-64. They were 38-1. They were the best team ever to not win the title.
The pain of that loss is still felt on a daily basis. There was no doubt which team was better, but maybe the pressure of the 40-0 dream became too much for them in crunch time. The sad thing was, they had prevailed in situations like that every time before the Final Four.
The thing about that season was at times it was hard to enjoy. Every game down the stretch felt like a chore. It stopped being fun as the record loomed larger than life. And if I felt that way as a fan, I cannot imagine how it felt to the players. Maybe a loss at LSU or to a team in the SEC tournament would not have been such a bad thing if that meant the difference between 38-1 and a national title. We’ll never know.