The John Calipari era in Lexington has been loaded with firsts. First program to produce 15 first-round draft picks in five years. First program to bring in five consecutive top-ranked recruiting classes. First team to earn a preseason No. 1 ranking the year after missing the tournament entirely. First program to produce the No. 1 and No. 2 draft pick in the same year. First program since Duke (1990-94) to make four Final Four appearances in five years. First team to start a season 38-0.
The last item on that list was supposed to be different. Perfection was supposed to be the coup de grâce for Kentucky. Forty wins and no losses: the unreachable fruit that only Cal's Cats could grab, and the giant middle finger to the face of anyone with a problem. Instead, it was 38-1 -- good enough to be stuck somewhere between 2013-14 Wichita State and 1990-91 UNLV, and forever locked out of the home of those who hoisted the hardwood on the first Monday in April.
As is the case with any life-altering heartbreak, Big Blue Nation will never be able to fully rid itself of the scar that came with Kentucky's Final Four loss to Wisconsin. There may, however, be a major shot coming in five months that will effectively numb the pain.
Slotting UK at No. 1 has become the safe play for any preseason top 25 countdown, and with good reason. The Wildcats under Calipari have only really made preseason prognosticators look silly once, when a subpar national freshman class and a season-ending injury to star center Nerlens Noel left Kentucky finishing the 2012-13 season in the NIT. Outside of that, Cal has led the Cats to five Elite Eights, four Final Fours, two national title games and brought home the program's eighth NCAA championship. A healthy run at No. 9 figures to start on Nov. 13.
While the subject may rear its head again if they beat reigning national champion Duke on Nov. 17, Kentucky's 2015-16 campaign is unlikely to be dominated by the "pursuit of perfection" talk that was more prevalent than any other throughout last season. The Wildcats will be dealing with what should be a much-improved SEC, and in addition to the Blue Devils, UK has non-conference showdowns with Kansas, UCLA, Ohio State and Louisville. A slip-up at some point before the calendar makes the dramatic flip to March seems like more of an inevitability than it did last November.
Though Kentucky carries the same coaches' poll ranking into this season as they did 12 months ago, there are few in Lexington who believe this group would match up all that favorably with the team that came so close to being college basketball's first unblemished champion in nearly four decades. That doesn't necessarily mean that the 2015-16 Cats don't have a better shot at finishing their season with some net-cutting.
From the first day of the 2014-15 season, the overwhelming consensus was that a "great" team was going to win the national championship. There were five or six teams that appeared to fit that mold, and it would have been extremely surprising if one of those squads didn't wind up claiming the title. One of them did. It just wasn't Kentucky. The Wildcats were a great team in a season that featured a handful of other great teams. They ran up against one of those teams on the season's final weekend, and that great team was better than they were on that particular night. It's as simple, and as painful, as that.
The sport's landscape would appear to be more navigable in 2015-16. There is no overly apparent dividing line between the group of teams who should rule the season and those who are merely staring up in envy. For Kentucky, a squad with yet another loaded class of newcomers, a returning starter at the most key of positions on a Calipari team, and a couple battle-tested bigs, this is an appealing setup.
Timing isn't everything in college basketball, but it's more important than it is in any other major American sport. Overwhelmingly positive or negative work that took four months to comprise can be completely wiped away by one or two good or bad weeks in March. In keeping with that theme, improved timing might be more important than an improved team when it comes to Kentucky's quest for championship No. 9.
Nothing that Kentucky has done since John Calipari arrived in 2009 has been ordinary, which is why it's impossible to handle previews of the Wildcats in any of the traditional fashions. Categories like "returning starters" and "percentage of scoring lost" are highly relevant for just about every team in the country, but UK is never like every other team in the country.
Where Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles and Devin Booker exited, Skal Labissiere, Jamal Murray, Isaiah Briscoe and Tyler Ulis enter. Think about that: four players from the same program were all lottery picks in the same draft, and that same program is sitting here as the projected No. 1 team in college basketball for the very next season. The fact that we don't find this occurrence even the least bit strange anymore might be even more insane than the actual phenomenon itself.
Any team that can count itself among the most talented in the country is going to enjoy a high level of success, and Kentucky appears once again to be loaded with players who will realize their lifelong dreams at next June's NBA Draft.
Recently cleared Labissiere has been at No. 1 or No. 2 on just about every 2016 NBA mock draft since their inception. Murray never finds himself too far below his teammate, and many believe the Canadian might actually be the bigger star this season. Briscoe is yet another consensus top 10 recruit whose stay in college is expected to be short. Ulis was widely considered to be the best point guard on last year's Kentucky team, and would have likely been the fifth Wildcat to hear his name called in the first round of the draft had he elected to follow the worn-out path of the one-and-done. Instead, he's back for another year in Lexington, and may have a bigger impact than any returning player in the Calipari era.
If you're looking for comparisons between this squad and the 2012 one which cut down the nets in New Orleans, there's this: Calipari has had just one Kentucky team that has received significant production from a senior, the national championship team which saw Darius Miller average just under 10 points per game. This year's team figures to receive a similar boost from Poythress, who was never expected to be around this long, but who now finds himself as the first Calipari recruit to play four years at Kentucky.
The other major parallel is that this team will allow Calipari to get back to letting his guys get up and down the court, a style which was noticeably lacking the past two seasons with the more halfcourt-oriented Harrison twins running the show. It's a shift that figures to please both Big Blue Nation and its front man.
There is no lack of evidence to support the widely-held belief that the egos attached to the highest-profile basketball recruits in the AAU era have gotten out of control. With that being the case, maybe the most remarkable aspect of what Calipari has been able to do at UK is that he's brought together the cream of the recruiting crop and never seemed to have much of an issue with his players coming together to pursue one common goal.
There has been nothing so far this summer or fall to indicate that this trend is going to be broken in 2015-16, but if you're looking for a reason why the Cats might be unsuccessful this season, that's about all there is. Maybe Lee, Poythress and Ulis don't take kindly to the 2015 crew once they start stealing the spotlight. Maybe Willis finally freaks out over being a former highly-rated recruit who gets treated like a glorified walk-on. Maybe Mulder smells and it creates a bad locker room environment.
These are the types of things that Kentucky's competition has to hope for in the Calipari era.