The NCAA Tournament began in 1939. As of the 2013 edition, that is 74 tournaments. The University of Kentucky has participated in 15 Final Fours and, of course, the Wildcats have won eight national championships. And despite that overwhelming success, most of the time, the Wildcats fall short of what, to a growing segment of a Big Blue Nation is the bare minimum: Kentucky in the Final Four.
The main problem with this segment of the BBN is that the extraordinary, once in a generation type team has suddenly shifted, becoming the minimum. Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the 2012 title team are the exceptions, not what anyone could or should reasonably expect from freshmen. The 1995-96 team was the cherry on top of the former head coach Rick Pitino’s rebuilding project. And again, it’s not often that a team that talented comes together and sacrifices for the common good and has a run of good luck to boot. It’s safe to say that if Derek Anderson doesn’t go down to an injury in 1997, Kentucky would have been a threepeat NCAA champion. As great as those teams were, their ongoing legacy shouldn’t be to overshadow every other team in Kentucky history.
The current edition of the Cats have, in relation to the lofty preseason ranking and accompanying hype, struggled. But we must keep in mind that this is how a young team should look. Even with conference play beginning, young players are still trying to find their way, not only on the basketball court, but at college in general with the majority being away from home for the first time. I can only imagine trying to make that adjustment while competing under the intense glare that accompanies being a Kentucky basketball player.
Even for this team, all is not lost. This season can still be “salvaged.” The Harrison twins have showed marked improvement, especially now that they’re starting to understand angles and how to get to the rim. Julius Randle shouldered the load early on with his string of double-doubles and continues to show how he simply cannot be guarded by one person. James Young has shown us that when he’s on, he can be video game on fire. And Alex Pothress is finally showing the grit and tough, aggressive play that most of the Big Blue Nation expected last year. The pieces are here for a deep run and if you can’t see that, then you’re not looking hard enough at the kids and they effort they’re giving. The team is learning. The team is growing. And I’m still on the “Wait Until March” bandwagon because I believe this team will be special.
The shadow of the 2012 title team will haunt Calipari until he wins another title, like the 1998 title haunted former coach Tubby Smith. With expectations the way they currently are in Big Blue Nation, Calipari won’t last 5 years in Lexington without another championship. The University of Texas basically ran off head coach Mack Brown, winner of one national championship and on runner-up finish, because the Longhorn fans believe national championship are their birthright, just like Kentucky fans. Expectations from both groups of fans suffered from what UK alum Pat Riley called the “disease of more.” With each success, the assumption is that every team will compete at a championship level, despite that assumption being wholly and completely unrealistic.
So this 2013-14 team isn’t where most people assumed they would be, but they’re probably where they should be and, unfortunately for some people, that’s squarely in the shadow of the 2012 title team.