Kentucky's championship formula being utilized, just not by the Wildcats

Jamie Squire

Two years after Kentucky first disproved the "can't win with freshmen" crowd, Kansas is attempting to drive a stake into the notion's chest.

Had the 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats not claimed college basketball's national championship, the 2013-14 Kentucky Wildcats never would have been the near consensus preseason favorites to do the same. It's an unprovable assertion, but probably not an overly controversial one.

Before those three weeks in late March and early April, 2012, the common thought was that a team disproportionately reliant on freshmen was incapable of winning it all. If the Fab Five couldn't do it in '91, if the Thad Five couldn't do it in '07, if John Calipari's first Wildcat team with John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe couldn't even make the Final Four in '10, why should we believe this is even possible?

It became possible when Calipari got his hands on a youthful group with the perfect blend of next-level talent and maturity beyond their years, and stuck them on the court with a couple of proven veterans they could look to when things got a touch dicey. The result was a 38-2 final record and the shattering of a previously unconquered conviction.

When Kentucky hauled in what numerous recruiting experts referred to as the "best recruiting class in the history of basketball" last offseason, talk that wouldn't have been brushed aside without the mold-breaking 2012 team became the norm. The virtual pointing and laughing at Wildcat fans for their 40-0 proclamations and t-shirts are justified, but let's not forget that UK was the preseason No. 1 pick by both major polls. Big Blue Nation didn't have a say in either of those. Just about everyone was on board with the notion that this was going to be a special season in Lexington.

After their 87-82 loss at LSU Tuesday night, Kentucky stands at 15-5 overall, just a game better than the 14-6 mark last year's Cats sported at this time. That squad wound up being bounced in the first round of the NIT by Robert Morris. While no one is predicting a similar fate for this UK team, the performance of Calipari's Cats over the past season and-a-half has resulted in plenty of talk that maybe what happened two years ago was an outlier. Maybe it was a perfect storm, nearly impossible to repeat given the current state of things in the college hoops world.

Or maybe we're all just looking at the wrong team.

Calipari's synonymity with the "one-and-done" rule has made Kentucky the first place everyone turns when any topic involving freshman talent is brought up. It's also the reason so few people have woken up to the fact that the team with the makeup most similar to UK's last national champion is the same one it beat in the title game.

Kansas didn't begin this season without any hype, but they also weren't the subjects of a single piece surrounding a potential pursuit of perfection. The Jayhawks were No. 5 in the preseason AP Poll and just a spot lower in the coaches' poll, mainly because they had the consensus No. 1 recruit in the country in Andrew Wiggins primed to wear the blue and crimson. Still, Bill Self returned exactly zero starters from his 2013 squad that won the Big 12 and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And while his group of incoming freshmen was undeniably talented, Wiggins was the only member of the 2013 class who brought a top 10 ranking with him to Lawrence.

As we begin this remake, it would seem natural to cast Wiggins as Anthony Davis, the consensus No. 1 high school recruit in his class of 2011. That role, however, belongs to Kansas' own big man.

The primary concern for Davis entering college was that he had hit an almost unbelievable growth spurt during his junior year of high school, and as a result he'd only been playing in the post for a couple of years. The primary concern for KU's Joel Embiid entering college was that he had only been playing basketball, period, for a couple of years.

A native of Cameroon, Embiid grew up enamored with volleyball and soccer, and reportedly didn't pick up a basketball until late 2011. Now, a little more than two years later, he's drawing countless comparisons to Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon and being widely projected to be the first player selected in this June's NBA Draft.

Like Davis in his only year of college ball, it's taken a while for Embiid to round into form. The Jayhawk center failed to score in double figures five times before Christmas, a benchmark he's hit in every game but one since. Kentucky's eventual national Player of the Year scored in single-digits four times before Christmas, but netted at least 10 in every game but two for the rest of the regular season. Davis wound up scoring just 14.2 ppg, the lowest average for any national player of the year since major individual awards were introduced to college basketball in 1955. Like Davis, it's the way Embiid impacts the game that has NBA scouts and college hoops junkies alike sharing a giant bowl of popcorn every time KU is on national television.

Wiggins hasn't exactly been a slouch either. He'll go into Wednesday night's game against Iowa State leading the Jayhawks in scoring (15.8 ppg) and ranking third in rebounding (6.0 rpg). He's also done little to damage his NBA stock, leading to a number of mock drafts projecting that he and Embiid will be selected with the first and second picks. If it happens, they'll be just the second teammates to achieve the feat, joining Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist from (hey!) that 2012 Kentucky squad.

The biggest comparison of all between this year's Jayhawks and the 2012 Wildcats is that neither relied quite as heavily on freshmen as most of the college basketball world believes. Freshmen are playing a whopping 75 percent of the minutes for this year's Kentucky team, a sizable increase over the 54 percent the freshmen on the national championship team accounted for. As for Kansas, its freshmen class is currently playing an eerily similar 56 percent of the team's minutes.

If all that isn't enough for you, then let's try one, maybe two, more.

The 2012 Kentucky Wildcats started three freshmen, the same number Bill Self has been sending out for the opening tip this season. That UK team's top two leading scorers were a freshman (Davis) and a sophomore (Doron Lamb), who combined to average 27.9 points per game. Kansas is also led by a freshman and a sophomore (Wiggins and Perry Ellis), who are tossing in 28.7 points per game together.

We're not even going to get into the similarities between Darius Miller and Naadir Tharpe, but yeah, there are some.

Even in a sport as forgiving as college basketball, first impressions are often difficult to shake. When Kansas dropped three of four games between Nov. and Dec. 10, they were written off by many as a team with an underachieving superstar and as another example of the foolishness of having faith in freshmen. Now, less than six weeks away from Selection Sunday, the Jayhawks are the only unbeaten in the Big 12 and have the chance to begin February by beating their sixth ranked opponent in seven games. Kentucky's 2012 squad never did that, but they did plenty of other things that look an awful lot like what's happening in Lawrence right now.

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