Looking Back into the Future

The University of Kentucky’s men’s team with their 2016 SEC championship trophy. Photo by Donna Gray

The University of Kentucky’s men’s team with their 2016 SEC championship trophy. Photo by Donna Gray

So where are we? After a real nail-biter – an overtime win that not only salvaged the SEC trophy but also gained some sweet revenge over Texas A&M – this Kentucky bunch seems more unsettled, with plenty of talent but also plenty of questions, than any of John Calipari’s UK teams.

What are we to make of this squad, now heading for Des Moines as a No. 4 seed in a bracket that includes North Carolina, West Virginia, Notre Dame and Indiana?

Cal hates the seed and wonders why Kentucky even played the SEC championship game. If UK beat Texas A&M, why is A&M a higher seed?

This happened once before, in 2011. In fact, if we go back in history, there were a few unsettled issues and unanswered questions surrounding Cal’s Cats going into the NCAA tournament.

History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it can be instructive.

March 14, 2010

After a one-point win over Vanderbilt (you might recall DeMarcus Cousins’ put-back at the buzzer to send the game into overtime), Kentucky was 32-2, second in the country behind Kansas, headed to New Orleans as the No. 1 seed.

There seemed to be very few questions about this John Wall-led team, except whom they’d meet in the finals and by how much they’d win.

That was brought to an abrupt halt two weeks later, 73-66, by West Virginia in the Elite Eight. Of all Calipari’s tournament teams, this was the only one not to get to the Final Four.

Jamal Murray passes the ball back to Tyler Ulis.  Murray had 26 points against Georgia. Photo by VICTORIA GRAFF

Jamal Murray passes the ball back to Tyler Ulis. Murray had 26 points against Georgia. Photo by VICTORIA GRAFF

March 13, 2011

Kentucky upset 12th-ranked Florida, 70-54, for the SEC tourney. Its 25-8 record was good for only 11th in the country, but Calipari was still rankled by the team’s No. 4 seed.

Nobody was talking much about Brandon Knight’s group with DeAndre Liggins guarding the perimeter like a pit bull on a chain and Josh Harrellson emerging as an unexpected force underneath.

That changed after back-to-back wins against national No. 1 Ohio State and North Carolina took UK into the Final Four. The semifinal loss to eventual champion, Connecticut, was almost anti-climactic.

March 11, 2012

Calipari’s lone championship team didn’t even win the SEC tourney, losing to Vanderbilt 71-64. Still, Anthony Davis and company were first in the country at 32-2 (an obvious first seed) and, after dispatching Louisville in the semi-finals in the commonwealth’s most memorable matchup, finished things up against Kansas.

March 16, 2014

This team of freshmen was hyped pre-season as a 40-0 possibility but struggled all year. In the SEC finals, it lost to Florida, the national No. 1 seed, by a single point (after losing by 19 a week earlier) when James Young fell down with the ball on the game’s last possession.

Unranked at 24-10, it took its eighth seed to St. Louis against Kansas State. Two days later, it beat undefeated Wichita State, and no Cat fan will ever forget the rest. Improbably, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin toppled like dominoes until, in the national championship game, Connecticut brought the dream to a halt.

March 15, 2015

This undefeated tsunami of a team easily dispatched Arkansas for the SEC tournament title. It headed into the NCAA tournament tops in the country, a No. 1 seed, an overwhelming favorite. Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and (barely) Notre Dame fell in lockstep, opening the door to another Final Four.

And then, I forget…something about Wisconsin.

March 13, 2016

So what does all this say about things as of this week? That nothing at all can be predicted. Consider this: Increasingly, national rankings have little to do with national championships.

Of the 24 Final Four teams, over the past six years, only eight were ranked one-through-four nationally at the end of the regular season – and three of those (Duke, Wisconsin and Kentucky) were in last year’s Final Four.

Kentucky, in 2012, was the only national  No. 1 to win the tournament. The other champions were Duke in 2010, ranked fourth going into the tournament (behind Kansas, Kentucky and Syracuse); Connecticut in 2011, ranked 21st; Louisville in 2013, ranked second (behind, yes, Gonzaga); Connecticut in 2014, ranked 21st again; and Duke in 2015, again ranked fourth.

But every year, it seems like someone catches fire: Kyle Singler, Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker, Luke Hancock, Shabazz Napier, Sam Dekker, Tyus Jones.

Aaron Harrison.

Who knows who it will be this year? Maybe Jamal Murray or Tyler Ulis. That wouldn’t be out of the question. Or maybe Derek Willis or Alex Poythress or Skal Labissiere?

Improbable? It takes only one shining moment, after all. VT