(Written By Tom Shanahan)
The calendar says four months ago Kentucky ranked as the preseason No. 1 team based solely on a recruiting class that was preposterously labeled the best in college basketball history.
In gray hair years, though, the time elapsed between the start of the regular season and the post-season’s opening rounds has been more like four years. Just take a look at his rapidly aging coiffure of the 55-year-old Kentucky coach, John Calipari.
Did the sportswriters on the Associated Press panel who made such “best-ever” proclamations hear of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lucius Allen? Those two and any other three guys out of an intramural class were better than Kentucky’s 2013-14 freshmen. Kareem’s Bruins accounted for three straight NCAA titles (1967-69).
How about Bill Walton, Jamaal Wilkes and Greg Lee? The San Diegan (Walton), Santa Barbaran (Wilkes), the San Fernando Valley boy (Lee) and any other two classmates off the beach were better than Calipari’s pups. Walton’s Gang accounted for two NCAA titles (1972-73) and an 88-game winning streak that lasted into their ill-fated senior year that ended with a loss to eventual NCAA champion North Carolina State in the 1974 NCAA Final Four semifinals.
As the season turned out, Kentucky wasn’t the best team in its own conference, the overall weak SEC. The Wildcats were ranked No. 25 entering Saturday’s regular-season finale at No. 1 Florida. They suffered an 84-65 loss to the Gators — 19 points! Every sportswriter on the AP panel who voted Kentucky No. 1 in the preseason should be stripped over his or her voting rights and banned for a year from reading recruiting rankings.
With the loss, Kentucky (22-9, 12-6 SEC) dropped out of the Top 25. Their votes totaled only 19 points to equal No. 31. Stephen F. Austin has 56 points and Harvard 27.
Here is the obvious — yet a big surprise to AP sportswriters — about Florida: The Gators are the NCAA favorite with a 23-game winning streak fueled by four seniors in its starting lineup. The seniors were honored Saturday: forward Will Yeguete (6-8, 230), forward Casey Prather (6-6, 212), guard Scottie Wilbekin (6-2, 176) and center Patric Young (6-9, 240).
The fifth starter is sophomore guard Michael Frazier II. In other words, there was not a freshman among them.
The Gators could suffer an upset in the SEC tournament that begins Wednesday and they’ll still earn a No. 1 seed. Kentucky, projected as a No. 7 seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, will be happy with a ticket to the bracket. It was only a year ago when Kentucky’s youngsters failed to earn an NCAA bid.
If we re-visit the SEC media days in October, Florida’s seniors predicted the season would turn out this way. Young scoffed at the idea of Kentucky as the nation’s preseason No. 1-ranked team — let alone the SEC’s.
“I hope they think they can just walk on the court and they’re going to beat everybody,” Young said on Oct. 17. “I hope that’s what they think. As soon as they play a real top team, they’re going to see it’s not just a walk in the park. One and done is not for everybody.”
Remember, Kentucky’s first loss and jolt to reality was delivered on Nov. 12 by Michigan State’s senior-led team with forward/center Adreian Payne and point guard Keith Appling. It took injuries to Payne, Appling and others to knock the Spartans from their No. 1 perch after beating Kentucky.
So who do we have to blame for this misguided belief that one-and-done recruiting strategy can build a Kareem-Walton -like UCLA dynasty with NCAA titles? You’ll say Calipari, but you’d be only partly correct.
The real culprits are Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis in the watered-down state of college basketball from too many players declaring too early for the NBA.
Rose is to blame because he almost won a national title for Calipari as a freshman point guard at Memphis. If Calipari could make it to an NCAA final with a freshman at Memphis, imagine what he must have thought he could accomplish with the recruiting pull of Kentucky.
Davis turned out to be that uniquely special talent who could dominate a game as a freshman when Kentucky won the 2012 NCAA title. Davis made it look too easy.
But if we take a closer look, Kentucky’s one-and-done track record has been on an overall downward spiral in Calipari’s five Kentucky seasons:
— 2009-10 — No. 1-ranked Kentucky, led by freshman point guard John Wall, was upset by West Virginia in the Elite Eight.
— 2010-11 — A new group of freshmen lead Kentucky to the Final Four before they were beaten in the semifinals. The Final Four trip was misleading despite its successes. Don’t forget that there are any number of forgettable teams that found their way into the Final Four without winning a title. It happens every year.
— 2011-12 — Freshman Anthony Davis, the 6-foot-10 center/forward with the 7-4 wingspan, led the Wildcats to the NCAA title. He provided the missing toughness that other Kentucky freshmen lacked in a high-pressure college games. Davis was a freak as a 6-10 man with guard agility. He was a guard until a growth spurt late in his high school years. Kentucky won’t see another player like him in Calipari’s lifetime.
— 2012-13 — Kentucky was shut out of the NCAA and suffered an NIT first-round loss to mighty Robert Morris.
— 2013-14 — With a class of freshmen foolishly heralded as the greatest in college basketball history, Kentucky will fall far short of an NCAA title.
You’ll note that as the season has unraveled Calipari has complained about the immaturity of his freshmen and their pouting over missed shots.
“We’re young — we’re 18- and 19-year-olds,” he said. “The biggest thing is take responsibility. As long as you take responsibility and know you need to change, you’ll change. If you listen to the clutter telling you it’s everyone else on the team and not you, now you don’t change.
“Just take responsibility, know what happened, let’s make some changes and let’s move on.”
You know what, Coach Cal? A couple of respected seniors on the roster could have helped them grow out of their immaturity.