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By David Schuh
Flashback to this time two years ago — UK was coming off a season ended by an Elite Eight loss to West Virginia, although some would argue it had the most talented team in the country.
Everything was there; they just couldn’t put it all together.
A team almost entirely comprising new players came in, and there was a bit of uncertainty as to what their potential really was.
UK head coach John Calipari has a team this year with as little experience as any in college basketball. Only one player, sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer, has seen meaningful minutes in an NCAA Tournament game.
The question everyone has been asking lately is: What is this team’s ceiling? Can the players put their athletic ability together in the right way to gel into a championship-caliber team? Or will the talent fail to translate to wins at this level?
This can be looked at from two angles — first, the bad.
The Cats don’t jump out at you right now like they did this time a year ago. There is a lot of talent there, but with it is uncertainty as to their discipline and patience.
So, here’s how it would go. UK would play respectably in the first two months, beating teams like Maryland and the others that it should beat. But, then the Cats would cap the calendar year off with a convincing loss to Louisville.
They would lose four or five games in the SEC (which wouldn’t sound too bad anywhere else in the South) and the freshmen would continue to show signs of inconsistency and an inability to buy into Calipari’s plan.
A pretty fitting four seed would greet them on Selection Sunday, but winning six games in a row would be too much to ask. The Cats finish with a Sweet 16 loss to a team with a little too much experience in the pressure of March.
It doesn’t seem all that outlandish, when you think about it. It really depends on how well Calipari can get them to play within the team concept.
If they do that, well, this would happen:
The Cats burst out of the gate, running over Maryland, getting a huge confidence win against Duke and going undefeated into Louisville.
The environment is hostile, pitting two of the nation’s three best teams. It’s a struggle, but UK scrapes by with a single-digit win. The Cats take the right steps to progressively continue meshing. They play unselfishly. Five or six players average double-figure points.
UK then rolls through the SEC, dropping one game to a seasoned Missouri or Florida team. It clinches the conference title and a No. 1 seed in the process. After using one of the best defenses in the country to lock down lesser teams in the first two weeks, the Cats find themselves heading back to Atlanta to the Final Four.
Once in Atlanta, the Cats grind out a win over Ohio State in the semifinal and get Indiana in a colossal national championship game. It goes down to the wire, but a 3-pointer by veteran Julius Mays seals it with under a minute left, also sealing UK’s ninth title in the process.
The season could really go either way at this point. It could even lie somewhere in the middle.
The talent is there to have an exceptional season. But, as with almost all of Calipari’s teams, if they don’t learn to play for each other, for the betterment of the team, it could just turn into the one that got away.