As the Big Blue Nation awaits the tipoff of the 2019-2020 edition of the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team, it’s always collective mental exercise to play the What If? game. What if the Cats lose? What if EJ Montgomery and/or Nick Richards never get “it?” What if, what if, what if. For a fan base of a team with more NCAA men’s basketball wins than any other program and boasts the highest all time winning percentage of any program, that has more NCAA titles than ant program outside of Westwood and over the last decade has more Elite Eight appearances, Final Fours, more NCAA wins than any other program… the BBN likes to borrow trouble and worry.
Admittedly, we all want Kentucky to win the NCAA title every year. No member of the BBN wants another debacle like the Duke game in the Champions Classic last year (118-84). And, yes, it’s been a long four (4) seasons since the Wildcats’ last appearance in the Final Four (2015). So, what if the Cats lose to Michigan State on Tuesday night? They might. But, and hear me out, what if the Cats do what they did in the 2016 Classic, defeating Michigan State 69-48? What if the Cats do what they did in the 2015 Classic, defeating Duke 74-63? What if Kentucky does what it did in the 2014 Classic, defeating Kansas 72-40? What if the Coach Cal’s kids did what they did in 2011, defeating Kansas 75-65? What if that happens?
Part of being a college basketball blueblood means there are going to be some high risk/high reward opportunities. The Champions Classic was setup so the best of the best could play one another and generate interest in the start of the college basketball season. If Kentucky is historically as good as we know it to be, the Big Blue Nation should embrace the marquee nature of the event. As head coach John Calipari does when he invokes rapper Meek Mill: “Scared money don’t make no money.” If Kentucky is going to be good enough to cut down the nets in April, these Cats need to figure out where they are in November. And for all the embarrassment of the Duke beatdown last year in Indy. the Blue Devils and Wildcats both lost in the Regional Finals of the NCAA tournament.
I’ve often said that it’s fair to look at John Calipari’s first decade in Lexington and wonder why there isn’t at least one more NCAA title banner hanging in the rafters of Rupp Arena. However, and this is where context and nuance come into play, it’s just plain disingenuous to consider Calipari’s tenure a failure. More Final Fours than anyone else. More Elite Eights (and to be fair, the Regional Final stage is a historical bugaboo for the Cats. It’s the only round of the NCAA tourney that the Cats have a losing record). 10 years into his run, some of the arguments against Calipari and his system need to be retired. One and Dones aren’t going anywhere. The schedule isn’t going to change by much and come March/April, Kentucky will be one of the teams to have a legitimate shot at the NCAA title.
Will Nick and EJ make the necessary leap? I hope so and Calipari’s resume is pretty good. Yeah, the 2016 frontcourt’s lack of production crippled what was one of the best backcourt’s in the nation. But what about Marcus Lee’s performance in the 2014 Elite Eight against Michigan? From a string of games with no minutes played to providing the performance that pushed the Cats into the Final Four, that’s coaching. There are a lot of things to worry about, but Calipari getting his guys to be the best versions of themselves and his teams to collectively be their best isn’t one of them. Look, I’m gonna be just a frustrated as the rest of the BBN when the Cats drop a game or if a player looks lost, but it’s important to step back and look at the big, macro picture.
Sometimes, things go right. Even for Kentucky Basketball