Kentucky players walk off the Bridgestone Arena court after another demoralizing early exit in tournament play (Dr. Michael Huang Photo).
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Talk about unpredictable. The Kentucky basketball team this year has been exactly that. Coach John Calipari’s squad began the preseason with a lofty No. 4 national ranking and visions of a ninth national title dancing in everyone’s heads. Seventeen weeks later on Selection Sunday, the Wildcats are still dancing—but just barely. They’re saddled with a middling 6th seed in the East (New York City) Regional of the upcoming NCAA Tournament, ready to embark on an improbable—but totally necessary—quest for redemption.
That’s not hyperbole either. Kentucky gets one last last chance to avoid disaster—the shameful extension of a four-year drought brought on by a worldwide pandemic and ignominiously crowned with a humiliating and inexplicable first-round tournament loss to Saint Peters last year. That on the heels of a historically worst ever 9 – 16 trainwreck of a season just one year prior. Combine all that with this current campaign of crushed hopes and shattered expectations, and you can see why the natives are uptight.
Uptight might just be the understatement of the year. Plenty of fans within Big Blue Nation are downright furious, some already brandishing pitchforks and torches. Others are even worse off—disgustingly apathetic after having already thrown in the towel. The remaining segment of die-hards are hanging by their fingernails with a residual smidgeon of ever-fading hope—fervently praying for a miraculous rebirth like they experienced in that magical run in 2014.
What can we expect? Your guess is as good as anyone’s. I do know that with this team, expect the unexpected. The Wildcats lost to lowly South Carolina at home, but beat a highly-ranked Tennessee team the very next game on the road. They blew out a dangerous Auburn team by thirty-two points, then lost to Vanderbilt on Senior Night in Rupp. The team rallied to beat the Hogs in Bud Walton Arena, then pulled the stinker in the SEC Tournament. You can’t blame anyone for being perpetually perplexed.
Truth be told, Kentucky fans flooded into Nashville last week with high expectations of a return to normalcy. By that I mean routine championship runs with the Cats still playing on Sunday afternoon. The blue mist blew in with visions of three straight days of good food, good friends, and late nights on Broadway. It had been way too long since the good times rolled.
Of course—surprise, surprise—the unexpected happened, and Vandy sent Kentucky fans packing on Friday night. For many, that was the proverbial last straw. FUHGEDDABOUDIT! Season over.
Or is it? Remember, the Big Dance means one last chance at One Shining Moment, and Coach Calipari has harped incessantly this year about his team playing only for March. Also remember that this Kentucky team performs exactly the opposite of how you think it will. That means you have to fill out Kentucky’s path in the bracket exactly the opposite of how you think they’ll fare.
There’s only one huge problem with that “reverse thinking” type strategy, and it has to do with Kentucky’s first-round opponent. Heading into the matchup with No. 11 seed Providence (21 – 11) on Friday in Greensboro—given what happened last year and now with UK transfer Bryce Hopkins waiting in the wings—the pressure to win will be immense. The Cats will need to shake those opening game jitters (or more accurately, Calipari needs to keep everyone’s head from exploding) in order to move on to the round of 32. Many cynics are already picking Kentucky to lose—which means they’ll win.
From then on, you wouldn’t expect Kentucky to advance any further—which with this team means subsequent victories over No. 3 seed Kansas State (23 – 9), No. 2 seed Marquette, and No. 1 seed Purdue if the seeds hold up. If there’s one thing we’ve learned this year, it’s that the Wildcats always play their best as underdogs, with their backs against the wall.
That would mean a trip to the Final Four in Houston. Don’t laugh. It’s exactly what’s needed for the aforementioned redemption and exactly where fans were thinking this team was headed at the beginning of the year. We shouldn’t lower the bar just because the team wobbled during the regular season. Kentucky fans should never settle for mediocrity. Droughts like this are not par for the course for the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball.
When measured against the gold standard, the last four years have been totally unacceptable. Here’s one last chance to make things right.
See you in Greensboro.
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.