Haven’t we been here a few times before? Yes we have. Kentucky used the Louisville game as a transformative moment, a catalyst for improved performance and increased cohesion on a John Calipari roster trying to come together.
By Matt Zemek
This is the reality of having such pronounced roster turnover each season: November and early December will involve some significant bumps in the road. This is the reality when Anthony Davis isn’t the freshman carrying the roster. This is the reality when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist isn’t the perfect number two supporting-cast player, the Pippen to Anthony Davis’s Jordan.
The 2011-2012 Kentucky freshman class was luminously spectacular, so overwhelmingly brilliant that it created for some the misleading expectation that most freshman classes could reach or at least come close to that gold standard. The remainder of the past decade showed that was never a realistic expectation. John Calipari believes in his methods – and well he should, given the continuous NBA pipeline he has developed, which builds loyalty from players and families and is a great recruiting tool which can continuously be mined to generate more success. The tradeoff for believing in his methods, though, is that Calipari has to endure these wild rides in the first month and a half of each season.
Calipari’s big bet: Big Blue can rally and respond by the time the Louisville game arrives.
Calipari wins this bet almost every time, and given the confidence a win over the Cardinals regularly generates, Calipari isn’t foolish to annually expect that he can begin to get the ship turned around in January, leading to a maturation process which has the Cats ready to make a run in March.
Yes, a run of four straight seasons without a Final Four is a point of pronounced frustration in Lexington. It stings, it’s not acceptable, and some golden opportunities have been missed. Yet, let’s not also think Calipari hasn’t put the Wildcats in position to make college basketball’s final weekend. UK hasn’t sealed the deal, but it has had a great chance to advance to the Final Four in three of the past four years.
Only 2016 is the exception. In 2017, UK was tied with North Carolina in the final seconds. In 2018, UK was the highest seed in its (Sweet 16) regional in Atlanta. In 2019, Kentucky faced Auburn for the right to go to the Final Four.
Kentucky in recent years has had a very Bill Self-like problem: losing in the Elite Eight. It’s not the Final Four, so the season is a failure, but that failure is relative, and it is also a slight one.
There is a difference between falling one win short of the Final Four and losing in the first round most years. Kentucky has retained its identity as a Cadillac program, whereas Indiana has fallen off the map as a legitimate college basketball power. Louisville is somewhere between UK and IU in a post-Rick Pitino context. The Cardinals show signs of building themselves back to a Kentucky-level standard, but until they make a deep March run, they will exist several notches below the high bar Calipari has set in Lexington.
Let’s get back to this season: Since the Louisville game, Kentucky has had a response for every opponent. Georgia and Alabama threw punches at the Wildcats over the past week, and Big Blue answered with the 3-point shooting which was nowhere to be found against Utah and Ohio State in that lost Las Vegas week in mid-December.
Immanuel Quickley has been a burst of brilliance the past week, but Ashton Hagans and E.J. Montgomery have also provided big buckets. There was a time earlier in the season when Tyrese Maxey had to carry a disproportionate share of the responsibility for this team, but now he has a lot of help, and a cohesive five-player group has emerged.
No, Kentucky has not achieved dominance, and to be sure, Missouri-Georgia-Alabama is not the top tier of the SEC, meaning that bigger games await. Yet, that familiar pattern – regroup against Louisville, revive in January, and try to hit one’s stride in late February and at the SEC Tournament – is well underway.
John Calipari has struggled in Novembers and Elite Eights in recent years. This time of year, however, is his sweet spot.