No 40-0 breeze for Kentucky, but long run possible

No 40-0 breeze for Kentucky, but long run possible

January 21st, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - College

READ MORE

This is part of Mark Wiedmer's annual series on teams with the potential to make the basketball Final Four.

Louisville Cardinals basketball dynasty a possibility

Arizona's Cactus Cats could win it all

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The big goal lasted three games. That's when Kentucky's very public discussion of a 40-0 college basketball season ended, a veteran Michigan State bunch delivering Big Blue its first loss on Nov. 12. Baylor added to that total 24 days later. Then North Carolina delivered another "L" eight days after that.

Throw in an overtime setback at Arkansas a week ago today and the Wildcats' potential dream season stands 13-4 overall (3-1 in the Southeastern Conference) with a No. 14 Associated Press ranking heading into tonight's visit from Texas A&M.

"We thought we'd come in here and blow everybody out," freshman point guard Andrew Harrison said late last month, just after UK outlasted defending national champion Louisville. "We have so much talent. We thought this would be a breeze. We found out it's not that easy."

But is the ultimate goal still possible? Can the least experienced of the NCAA's 351 Division I men's basketball teams still improve enough to win the school's ninth national championship come April in Dallas?

Only slightly ratcheting back the yearly outrageous expectations of Big Blue Nation, can a program that was bounced from the first round of the National Invitation Tournament last March somehow reach the Final Four 54 weeks later?

"I've got all these 18-, 19-year-old kids," Kentucky coach John Calipari said after Saturday's 74-66 home win over Tennessee. "We broke down a little bit, but we're moving the right way."

Kentucky's Andrew Harrison (5) shoots under pressure from Tennessee's Antonio Barton during the UK Wildcats' SEC win Saturday afternoon. Harrison and his twin brother are key parts of the new set of Kentucky whiz kids this year.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Calipari's UK resume before last season is part of the reason so much was expected this time around. He went to the Final Four in 2011 with a team dominated by freshman guards Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb and freshman forward Terrence Jones. The next year, guided by rookie sensations Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who would go 1-2 in that summer's NBA draft, the Wildcats won the national championship, finishing 38-2 with a 16-0 regular-season SEC mark.

It was after that NCAA-title win inside New Orleans' Superdome that Cal first talked of having a team go 40-0. When he landed this year's stunning recruiting class -- half of the eight signees were ranked in the consensus top 10 -- to go with returning prep All-American Alex Poythress and 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, everyone immediately believed this team could be at least as good as his 2012 champs.

Nor did that hype immediately end when the season began. After falling 89-57 in UK's opener, UNC-Asheville coach Nick McDevitt gushed: "To win the national championship you need to have three first-round draft picks. They've got more than three, and so they will obviously be one of the favorites to win it once again. When you've got four or five of the top 25 players predicted in the draft, that would be a fun team to coach."

But any comparison between that 2012 juggernaut and this squad doesn't stand up to logic or scrutiny. Three crucial members of the 2012 team had played major minutes in the previous year's Final Four: Jones, Lamb and Darius Miller. Beyond that, as talented as this 2013-14 squad is, only power forward Julius Randle and point guard Andrew Harrison would have had a chance to start on that title team.

And Randle would have to beat out Jones, who averaged 12.3 points and 7.2 rebounds on a team that had all five starters average double figures in points with sixth man Miller averaging 9.9.

Against a schedule that included six NCAA tournament games and six regular-season games against teams that would reach the Sweet 16 or beyond, the 2012 Cats' average margin of victory was 16.8 with six wins by 30 or more points and 10 others by at least 20. Their two defeats were by a total of seven points.

"As good a team as we've seen in a long time," ESPN's Jay Bilas said of the 2012 champs.

By comparison, this UK team has lost four games by a total of 16 points, has won only one by more than 15 since Nov. 27 and has won three of its last four by less than 10 each.

Even their lone easy win since Christmas (85-63 over Mississippi State) brought this observation from losing coach Rick Ray, whose Bulldogs led the host Wildcats 40-37 at halftime: "It's a shame that people are going to turn on 'SportsCenter' tonight and think it's a blowout. I just don't think that's indicative of the way we played and fought and competed."

Indeed, UK has trailed at halftime in four of its last seven games and has had a double-digit lead at that point only once in its last 13 contests.

On the other hand, the Cats have won the second half by at least 11 points six times in those 13 outings.

"They did what teams do that are supposed to win," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said after watching a 43-41 halftime edge at Rupp become a 93-80 loss. "The great programs find a way at the end."

The individual numbers show there is much potential for UK to become great by March. Randle is averaging a double-double (16.9 ppg, 10.5 rpg). Fellow freshmen James Young (14.2 ppg), Aaron Harrison (14.1 ppg) and twin Andrew Harrison (11.5 ppg and 3.5 apg) also are scoring in double figures.

UK is out-rebounding opponents by nearly 12 a game and holding them to 39 percent shooting from the floor.

"This team is getting better," Calipari said after the Tennessee game. "They're playing and fighting. They're playing together. They're executing better."

But whatever they ultimately achieve, it figures to be anything but a Big Blue breeze. Winning with 18- and 19-year-old kids not named Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist rarely is.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.