Kentucky basketball is about to welcome the greatest recruiting class of all time.
Nine months ago that statement was paraphrased by college basketball analysts, fans and sports writers throughout the country.
The hysteria was reasonable given the consensus national rankings assessed to six of the eight freshmen.
Andrew Harrison: Number one point guard.
Aaron Harrison: Number one shooting guard.
Julius Randle: Number one power forward.
Dakari Johnson: Number one center.
James Young: Number two shooting guard.
Marcus Lee: Number 17 overall prospect.
This is the freshman class that was supposed to erase the memory of the 2012-2013 UK season and the sheer existence of Robert Morris University in the proverbial mind of the big blue faithful. Prior to the season, a 40-0 record was suggested by some, but most “sane” Wildcat fans expected at the least a deep NCAA Tournament run.
Lofty is an adjective too soft to describe the expectations placed on this young Wildcat team. Words like “unrestrained,” “excessive” and “intense” are the more appropriate choices when describing the hope for the Wildcats.
What could have possibly caused members of the Big Blue Nation, professional college basketball analysts and even casual fans to expect a young, freshmen-oriented team to reach the pinnacle of college basketball glory?
One year. 2012.
The narrative on the 2011-2012 Kentucky Wildcats is that they dominated college basketball because of their star freshmen. Twenty-seven of the team’s 38 wins were decided by double digits. Its two losses came by a combined score of eight points.
Kentucky was college basketball during the 2011-2012 season, but not because of the basketball ability of its freshmen. The 2011-2012 Kentucky Wildcats exemplified intangibility during that magical season.
The 2013-2014 Kentucky Wildcats are better than the 2011-2012 team according to individual player rankings. This year’s squad has more high school All-Americans, more height and more twins, so what made the 2011-2012 team seemingly unbeatable?
Consider the cliché lottery player. He sits on a couch, passively watching the lottery drawings on television, when the first number matches up with his ticket. He may scoff at his luck and think “this will be the only one I get right!”
To his alarm, the next number called is correct. He perks up, eyes glued to the television now. The dreaded third number is announced, and what do you know? That is three in a row and he is up from his seat. Next the fourth number, and he is reaching the Matthew McConaughey-level of confidence. Got it! Four in a row!
This is his night, he was meant to win this lottery. In his mind, the toughest numbers are the first four and he won them all. In a split second he believes he has already won. Now the “easy” number is about to be announced. He is not even clutching the lottery ticket as he smirks at the screen, arms folded. And the fifth lottery number….is not his.
Prognosticators of the 2013-2014 Kentucky Wildcat season are that lottery player. “They have the size!” Lottery ball one. “They have the athleticism!” Lottery ball two. “They have John Calipari!” Lottery ball three. “They have the greatest recruiting class of all time!” Lottery ball four.
They received all the information they needed to make a prediction. They felt they might as well turn off the television because that fifth lottery number is coming. The Wildcats might as well not even play the games this year because Kentucky basketball is going to undoubtedly win it all just like in 2012.
That fifth lottery number is the clincher. In Kentucky basketball’s case that final number is called intangibility.
The Intangibles: 2011-2012 Wildcats v. 2013-2014 Wildcats
Focal players with deep post-season/“spent-the-whole-season-surrounded-by-leaders” experience: It is easy for theorists to suggest that the talent-level of the freshmen is the reason for the 2012 championship banner hanging in Rupp Arena. The starting lineup featured three freshmen (Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) and two sophomores (Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones.)
Lamb and Jones were members of the 2011 Wildcat team that rode momentum all the way to the Final Four. The two knew what it took to play in the Big Dance, not only because they almost danced all the way to the championship game, but also because of who they played with the year before.
Senior Josh Harrelson and junior Deandre Liggins catalyzed the 2011 team. Harrelson and Liggins did not use Kentucky as a launching pad to the NBA for one season (although both would be drafted later that year,) the two were recruited by exiled former head coach Billy Gillespie.
Lamb and Jones played alongside experienced upper-classmen whose passion for the Wildcats was an aroma so strong that Lamb and Jones were forced to inhale.
The 2013-2014 team also has two sophomores who have a prominent role in the rotation (Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein.) What differentiates the two teams is that the only postseason experience the 2013-2014 sophomores possess is an NIT-first-round loss against “Bobby Morris.”
The Darius Miller Factor: Of course I was not about to leave out the heart and soul of the 2012 championship team. Miller meant so much to that team that he deserves his own category.
Miller, a senior, brought experience to this team, both good and bad. Like Cauley-Stein and Poythress, he felt the embarrassment of having lost in an NIT Tournament game, but unlike them he also felt the unparalled emotion of Elite Eight and Final Four appearances.
Miller was also self-sacrificing. Despite starting for the majority of his junior year and winning the Most Valuable Player of the SEC Tournament, Miller accepted the sixth-man role for the 2012 team. Miller was Mr. Basketball in the state of Kentucky and embodied his home state as if he was an actual elected representative.
The player most reminiscent of Miller on the 2013-2014 roster is seldom-used-red-shirt senior Jon Hood. Hood also won Mr. Basketball in Kentucky, but lacks the playing-time experience, accolades and “lead-by-example” qualities that Miller brought to the Wildcats in 2012.
Self-sacrificing team mentality:
The top six scorers on the 2011-2012 team:
- Anthony Davis 14.2 points per game.
- Doron Lamb 13.7 points per game.
- Terrence Jones 12.3 points per game.
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist 11.9 points per game.
- Marquis Teague 10.0 points per game.
- Darius Miller 9.9 points per game.
When virtually six players on a team are averaging double digits, players are sharing the ball. Davis, the team’s best player, leading scorer and future number-one-overall NBA pick, took the fourth most shots at 8.4 field goals per game (Jones 9.3 FGA/game, Lamb 9.2 FGA/game, Teague 8.8 FGA/game.)
The 2012 team was balanced and bought in to the concept of laying down personal glory for the goal of winning the title. The 2013-2014 team appears to be unable or unwilling to make the same sacrifice.
The top six scorers on the 2013-2014 team (as of March 12):
- Julius Randle 15.4 points per game.
- James Young 14.4 points per game.
- Aaron Harrison 13.5 points per game.
- Andrew Harrison 10.8 points per game.
- Willie Cauley-Stein 7.4 points per game.
- Alex Poythress 6.0 points per game.
When only four of the top six scorers are averaging double figures, players are coveting the ball like Gollum coveted the ring. Young and Aaron Harrison are both firing up over ten field goals per game despite shooting below 42 percent from the field. As a team, the Wildcats rank 255th in the country in total assists. Only one player is averaging more than 2.1 assists per game (Andrew Harrison 3.5 APG.)
Free throw discipline: Calipari-coached teams have historically struggled at the free throw line. The 2011-2012 team shot 72.3 percent from the free throw line, good enough for 65th in the country (65th may sound unappealing, but it includes Jones’, who was third on the team in free throw attempts, 62.7 percent.)
The 2013-2014 has attempted the eighth-most free throws in all of college basketball as of March 12. The team is shooting 68.5 percent from the free throw line, 222nd in the country.
The most important thing for Kentucky Wildcat fans to keep in mind heading into the NCAA Tournament is the element of intangibility. Even the infamous Fab Five Michigan team, which was a source of comparison for the 2013-2014 Wildcats, had the necessary intangibles. The players on that team recruited one another because they wanted to leave a legacy in college basketball.
The 2013-2014 Kentucky Wildcats lacks a Darius Miller-type-of player. It lacks players that have experienced crucial minutes in the NCAA Tournament, let alone the National Championship game.
This year’s Kentucky Wildcats should not be blamed for not possessing the necessary tools and players that make championship-caliber teams successful. The regular season is over, now is the time for those experiences to be gained.
What UK fans must understand is that they also must possess an intangible skill.
This team is not the championship team of 2012, but it may still be on the verge of hitting its peak, because it may still be the greatest recruiting class in the history of basketball.