Final Four 2014: Kentucky remains college basketball's most fascinating team five months later

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

A team that didn't make the 2013 NCAA Tournament began the 2013-14 season ranked No. 1, and the world still has no idea whether or not that was justified.

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Since before they ever played their first game, John Calipari's fifth Kentucky Wildcat team has been the most fascinating college basketball squad in recent memory. That fact is the one constant the 2013-14 season has afforded us.

There was a time when landing a blue chip basketball recruit came hand-in-hand with a 3- to 4-year pass to watch the young man develop and hopefully put himself in a position to become a pro. As such, program stability was much easier to attain. Land one or two great recruiting classes, be a national title contender for six or seven years.

We are more than a decade removed from the last vestiges of that era, and firmly entrenched in one where re-learning the rosters of the sport's power programs has become an exercise on par with the one displayed annually by hardcore Major League Baseball fans. Basketball's top amateur talent no longer remains amateur talent for any longer than it has to, which makes every recruiting season a do-or-die time frame for the bulk of the game's most well-known coaches.

Success is no longer kin with consistency, a fact best showcased by the recent struggles of programs who attained the sport's top prize.

Since the expansion of the NCAA Tournament, there have been just five national champions who have failed to qualify for the big dance the next season. Three of those occurrences have taken place in the last six years (2008, 2010 and 2013).

This being the case, it boggles the right brain to think that the Division-I program which showcased the most consistency between 2009-2012 was also the one with the most turnover.

In his first three seasons at Kentucky, John Calipari produced two No. 1 seeds, two Final Four appearances and 13 NCAA Tournament wins. He sent 15 players off to the NBA, saw 11 of them selected in the draft's first round, lost a total of zero home games and brought home the program's eighth national championship.


Photo credit: Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

It would have been foolish to believe that things could continue on that way until Calipari left Lexington, but a prediction that the string of success would be snapped with a season culminating in a first round NIT loss to Robert Morris would have been deemed equally foolish.

A subpar overall recruiting class, a key injury and a new point guard who couldn't live up to the lofty standards set by his predecessors resulted in 12 Wildcat losses and a dance card left unpunched. It was just the second time Kentucky had missed the NCAA Tournament in the last 21 years.

Fast-forward eight months and the Wildcats were taking the floor on Nov. 8 as the No. 1 team in the country. It was an unseen, unproven transformation that would pique the interest of mid-'90s Michael Jackson.

Not only did Kentucky become the first team to ever earn a preseason No. 1 ranking the year after missing the NCAA Tournament entirely, but Big Blue Nation created the secondary storyline of wanting to win their ninth title without losing a game. There were even t-shirts and a website ( dedicated to the cause.

Though the rest of the college basketball world (and the vast majority of Kentucky fans) have rolled their eyes at the notion of a perfect season, it's a storyline that Calipari himself laid the foundation for a couple years ago.

"Before I leave coaching, I would like to coach an undefeated team," Calipari said in the hours after his team claimed the 2011 national title. "I would like to coach an undefeated team before I'm done with this. Why? Because it can't be done, so let's chase that. We've had the most wins in 2008 and now this year we had 38 wins; no other program has done that. Let's go get them all."

"Getting them all" became a legitimate dream for some, a dream which died in UK's third game of the season, a 78-74 loss to Michigan State.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Kentucky's hype heading into the 2013-14 season was that the big difference between Calipari's fourth Wildcat team and his first three was still attached to his latest squad.

The fascination with the Wildcats has now gone from whether they would do it to how the hell they did do it.

With all due respect for the down 2013 recruiting class and the struggles of Ryan Harrow and the injury to Nerlens Noel, Kentucky's major weakness a season ago was that it didn't have a veteran leader who had proven his worth at UK. There was no Patrick Patterson (2009-10), no DeAndre Liggins (2010-11) and no Darius Miller (2011-12). Calipari was forced to hope that a newcomer could step up and lead, an event which never occurred.

Playing basketball at Kentucky is unlike playing anywhere else in America. Big Blue Nation treats the last man on its bench like an NBA All-Star. If you wear that jersey, if you warm up on that court, you are a certified celebrity in the city of Lexington.

While this sounds like a perfect scenario to you and me, it's a lot for any 18 or 19-year-old kid to handle, especially if things go sour. Having someone around who has gone been through that, gotten past it and ultimately thrived is an invaluable boon on a team with such lofty expectations. It's also a boon that Calipari was without for a second straight season.

Perhaps the lack of a proven veteran deserves some of the blame for the three pre-New Year's losses, the six SEC defeats and the becoming the first preseason No. 1 to ever fall out of the AP Top 25 completely, and perhaps it doesn't. No one really knows, and that's what makes these Wildcats so intriguing.

If the drop-off from Cal's string of success to his "dud season" had entailed a five or six seed and a second round exit in the NCAA Tournament, the notion of UK being able to dominate the sport the way they did two years ago wouldn't have been so difficult to fathom five months ago. But that's not what happened.

The focus shifted from an NIT loss to Robert Morris to a dominating national title run without a single game being played, which made everyone wonder whether or not Calipari and this recruiting class (or any recruiting class) could possibly be that good. They weren't. Or were they?

Kentucky is about to play in its third Final Four in three seasons, a fact which surprised only a handful of people five months ago and not surprised the same number five weeks ago. The fascination with the Wildcats has now gone from whether they would do it to how the hell they did do it.

You can't say they got a favorable draw. The common thought was that the Wildcats were under-seeded as an eight, and then defeated three teams that could have easily wound up in the Final Four had they landed in a different region. You can't say their youth has yet to be tested. The freshmen had to make huge plays in the final minutes of the wins over Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan, and in each instance they stepped up and shattered the hearts of their opponents.

All of this we know, but again, what changed? It was just five weeks ago that Kentucky fans were calling a loss to SEC cellar dweller South Carolina the low point of the Calipari era and wondering aloud (very aloud) whether or not the one-and-done lifestyle would bring them the highest level of success again.

So did this team simply need the entire regular season to mature and gel? Were they just kind of dogging it until faced with a "win or the season's over" scenario? Are these mysterious Calipari "tweaks" just that good? There's no way to know the answers to these questions, and there probably never will be.

The preseason No. 1 team in the country is now two victories away from matching the 1985 Villanova Wildcats as the lowest-seeded team to ever win the NCAA title. That one sentence says all you need to know about the 2013-14 Kentucky Wildcats, and why, regardless of what happens this weekend in Dallas, they will be talked about for decades to come.

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