I’m normally not one for nostalgia, but at a time when most of the sports world is in a lull (except for all the NBA trade talks and NFL preseason), I find myself reflecting on basketball seasons past.
Karl-Anthony Towns’ summer return to campus to run a skills camp for young basketball players included a mini press conference in which KAT was asked about his year at UK. During this time, Karl-Anthony reflected on the unique intersection of talent, depth, selflessness, and Calipari that made his one season in Big Blue Nation so incredible. You can read more about his remarks here.
Reading about KAT’s take on the season took me back to that season and all the thoughts I had when I watched this team play and all the things that made this group special.
The Platoon System
One of the catchphrases that’s thrown around a lot with the groups of highly ranked recruits coming in each and every year is “We don’t rebuild, we reload.” This was so true this year, but it didn’t only apply to the new group of recruits coming in. It applied to the fact that Calipari essentially had two starting lineups in his 10-man rotation. His starting five were stellar and the next five off the bench were not far behind.
This allowed for the bench to be used liberally because the team on the floor didn’t miss a beat from one set of five to the other. Not only that, but each group played well with each other so if neither platoon was working well on its own, Calipari had the option of mixing in some different rotations.
The depth was incredible and as other teams were wearing down over the course of a game, our guys were still fresh. Because of this season, no player on this squad averaged more than 25 minutes per game. That is impressive.
Veterans and Rookies
This season in Kentucky basketball had probably one of the best mixes of young freshman and experienced sophomores and juniors that Calipari has had during his tenure at UK.
The major stars were freshman (KAT, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles), but the Harrison twins came back, as did Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, and Willie Cauley-Stein. As good as the freshman coming in were they had guidance from a group of guys that had been there before and could share their insights and provide leadership to the talented incoming group.
This contrasts sharply with the incoming group of Wildcats that Calipari has repeatedly said is the least experienced group he’s had at UK. We shall see what magic Cal comes up with this year, but suffice it to say the learning curve for the incoming freshman will be much steeper than it was for the 2014-15 group.
This group of Wildcats came together at the cost of their own personal stats. Any of the incoming freshmen could have gone to a handful of different schools and put together impressive personal resumes that would have wowed NBA teams. But they didn’t.
They sacrificed their egos to come to Kentucky and do something incredible. No one on this team averaged more than 10 points per game. You can’t tell me that KAT would not have averaged a double-double at any other school in the country. He, and Booker, and Lyles and all the other freshmen gave up their personal stardom to become a team that would do things not seen in this millennium.
That’s pretty special.
The way this team played defense made it possible to cover for times when the offense might have been shaky. The 2014-15 squad only scored 74 points per game, but had a plus-20 scoring margin on the season. That is crazy. And one doesn’t have to be a die-hard UK fan to remember the incredible defensive game against UCLA at the beginning of the season. The 44-7 first half was kick started by this 24-0 run at the beginning of the game:
This defense continued throughout the season and propelled the Cats to a 31-0 regular season record, as well as an SEC regular season and tournament championship and a berth in the Final Four. Karl-Anthony Towns said it best in his press conference on Sunday: “I mean, we’re beating teams by 50. UCLA should’ve just walked off the court against us at one point. It’s no disrespect to any university, but that year was our year.”
The Final Four
After making it to the National Championship game the year before, and after the undefeated, dominant regular season, this group of Cats had high expectations for themselves. The “40-0” talk was heavy throughout this entire season. Even though I’m not really one to count my chickens before they hatch, I was buying into this hype.
This team was the real deal and, after watching them for an entire season, it was hard to see how any team could beat them. I remember the night of the Final Four game versus Wisconsin. It was the Saturday before Easter and I had to miss most of the game due to a family event.
I had to catch the waning minutes on the radio with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt’s outstanding game-calling. I was in shock at what was happening. This vaunted team had met its match on that particular night. Kentucky fans were confronted with that one axiom of sports that is always true, nothing is a certainty.
Any given night, anything can happen. That’s why we love sports. The outcomes aren’t guaranteed no matter how dominant a team appears. I do not think that Wisconsin team was better than Kentucky, but they were better that night.
This team was special and they made a mark on college basketball. Their 38-1 record is the best record ever by a team that did not finish the season undefeated. The team never lost their number one ranking during the entire season.
After this season, seven players declared for the draft and six were drafted. Almost all of these players have deals in the NBA (congratulations Dakari Johnson on his recent deal with the Thunder!).
Not only that, but Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker have become very outspoken ambassadors for Calipari and the University of Kentucky basketball program; recruits are always listening to what former players have to say, and they can see for themselves the success Calipari’s guys have in the NBA.
Like I said at the top, I normally don’t enjoy nostalgia, but I thank Karl-Anthony for his time at UK and for prompting me to remember a season of basketball that likely won’t be topped for quite a few years.