clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Kentucky's imperfection defines modern college basketball

Kentucky's house of perfection came crashing down in Indianapolis Saturday night, and for a variety of reasons, this may always be the one that stings the Wildcats more than any other.

SB Nation 2015 March Madness Bracket

It has been a little over three years since Kentucky cut down the nets in New Orleans and claimed its eighth national championship, and still, it almost feels like the Wildcats have spent each day since then on top of the college hoops world. Perhaps waking up every morning for nearly a year -- save the short period of time when actual 2014 national champion Connecticut was given its due moment in the spotlight -- with UK occupying the sport's top spot, whether literally or figuratively, gave us all a false sense of the length of Big Blue Nation's reign. Or that there was ever a reign at all.

The top-ranked recruiting classes, the No. 1 rankings, the unprecedented amount of NBA Draft picks and, most recently, the pursuit of perfection -- it's all led to an increasingly popular notion that Kentucky is the hoops equivalent of Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide. The rightful ruler of the hardwood ready to take the baton from its SEC brethren once the final whistle blows in mid-January.

But few things in college basketball are as straightforward as they are in the world of its gridiron counterpart, and Big Blue Nation's claim to Alabama's -- they of three national championships in the last six seasons -- duplicate throne is no different.

Kentucky has received No. 1 votes in each of the last three preseason coaches and Associated Press Top 25 polls, and has started the last two season as both set of voters' pick to cut down the nets at the end of the year. In those three seasons, the Wildcats have lost in the first round of the NIT, been a No. 8 seed which advanced all the way to the title game before losing to a No. 7 seed and become the first team in college basketball history to start a season 38-0 before bowing out in the national semifinals.

It's a résumé so eccentric that it forces us to call into question not just how we view this era of UK basketball, but how we view success and dominance and, yes, "dynasties" for the whole of the sport.

If it's just about winning the end of the year tournament, then Connecticut's done that twice in the last five years, and three times since 2004. If Duke defeats Wisconsin on Monday, then the Blue Devils will have their second title since 2010, and their third since 2001. John Calipari has brought just one championship home to Lexington, a fact doomed to remain unchanged for at least another 12 months.

This all being the case, how has Calipari made Kentucky the name associated with college basketball in recent years?

The easy answer is four Final Fours in six seasons and the ability to churn out lottery picks at a rate no one knew was possible as recently as a decade ago. The more convoluted answer is that the sport itself is in the middle of a period that remains equal parts fascinating and peculiar, and the Wildcats are the era's fascinating and peculiar champion.

We aren't all that far removed from a time when landing a blue chip basketball recruit came hand-in-hand with a three- or four-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. The struggle for success in college hoops had little to do with deciphering the formula.

We are now more than a decade removed from the final 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 demanded of hardcore Major League Baseball fans each spring. 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. There are no stars in the sport anymore, because the biggest boon that comes with attaining modern stardom has become the guarantee of a forthcoming professional contract, so long as you can go five or six weeks without getting hurt.

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

Since the expansion of the NCAA Tournament, there have been just six national champions that have failed to qualify for the big dance the next season. Four of those six occurrences have taken place in the last eight years -- Florida in 2008, North Carolina in 2010, Kentucky in 2013 and Connecticut this season.

That said, it boggles the right brain to think that the program which has showcased the most high-level consistency over this period has also been the one with the most consistently overwhelming turnover from one season to the next.

The predictable allegations of cheating from rival fans that have accompanied Kentucky's recent success have always seemed ridiculous given the recruiting pitch that's currently in place: come spend eight or nine months in this city that cares about what you do more than it cares about anything else, be treated like a God during this time, play in national spotlight games, get talked about on ESPN a lot, make a run at a championship, then leave and become a millionaire. Don't believe me? Look at all these guys who were in your shoes these last few years and went on to follow the exact path I just laid out.

Suddenly, Kentucky's consistent success under its current head coach becomes much easier to understand.

The 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.

That last item on that list is likely the one that hurts BBN the most when you squish all those accomplishments together and a solitary national title pops out.

Kentucky's most recent first might be the most unwelcome in the program's history, but it's also the one that may linger longer than any other.

Perfection was supposed to be the coup de grâce for UK. Forty wins and no losses: the unreachable fruit that only Kentucky could grab, and the giant middle finger to the face of anyone with a problem. Instead, it's 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.

Understandably, Kentucky fans want to believe that this group will be different, that this member of the "almost" club will be the one graced with the forever glow that one out-of-character stretch at the wrong time shouldn't be able to wholly erase. Maybe it will. In Lexington. The rest of the world will never be as forgiving.

No one remembers the greatness that it takes to get to a point where "imperfect" becomes something more than an assumed character trait that was there since the beginning. No one remembers the 2007 New England Patriots, the 1991 UNLV Runnin' Rebels or Armando Galarraga without remembering David Tyree's catch, Duke's semifinal stunner or Jim Joyce's blown call an instant later.

The "1" is always going to be there, and it's always going to be what speaks the loudest about the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats. For the time being, it's also what has left this current era of UK hoops without any incontestable definition.

It's cruel and it's unfair, but it's better than not being remembered at all, right -- right?

This Kentucky team and this Wildcats era are going to be remembered, but not for being perfect, and unless something changes, not for being kings. Blame the postseason setup, blame flawed perception or blame Frank Kaminsky, but it certainly feels like Big Blue Nation just lost much more than its first game in 362 days.

SB Nation video archives: John Calipari failed Kentucky and Big Blue Nation (2014)