By Jeff Rozen
Last weekend, fresh off a stirring victory over Ole Miss and, a week earlier, the annual win over Louisville, many of us in the Big Blue Nation were beginning to believe again. The woeful performance against Ohio State and the pounding at UCLA had begun to seem more like bad dreams than real games.
Then came Tuesday. Then came LSU. Then came another unwelcome dose of reality.
So now we have a different vibe, a different narrative surrounding your 2015-16 Kentucky Wildcats: can this team get back on track, right the ship, and have the sort of post-season success (read: Final Four) that has become the norm under Calipari? If the recent past is any indication, there has to be some hope.
In 2010-11, the Cats began the season ranked 12th despite the loss of 5 players from the 35-3 team of 2010 who were taken in the first round of the NBA draft. Sound familiar? Of course it does, and just like the current team, that group stumbled early, suffering a humiliating loss to Connecticut in Maui. After 15 games, they were 12-3, and would go on to lose 6 games in league play. Then, they caught fire, beating #1 overall seed Ohio State and avenging an earlier loss to North Carolina on the way to UK’s first Final Four in 11 years.
And, of course, just 2 years ago, the ’14 Cats had an even more spectacular rebirth. You know the story: given up for dead after losing to a horrible South Carolina team on March 1st, then “the Tweak” and the now-legendary run to the championship game.
Given these recent examples, it would seem that we have every reason to be hopeful, right? Can we expect this team to not only get better, but to make a deep March run?
Maybe, but I don’t think it’s likely. Though the current team and season bear some superficial similarities to those turnaround years, there are some glaring differences, and they’re not in favor of this year’s Cats.
With the amazing Tyler Ulis and the scoring of Jamal Murray, the current backcourt is good, and will improve. Still, the 2011 guards were even better. In the 6-3 Brandon Knight, you had a combo point with NBA size who could both distribute the ball and score. His running mate was Doron Lamb (6-4), one of the best 3-point shooters in UK history. By January 9th of that season, their combined scoring average was 31.2 ppg, and they were shooting an incredible 44.5% from the arc.
Bigger, even better guards. And while the current Cats have Isaiah Briscoe as a defensive bulldog, give me DeAndre Liggins (6-6, and a junior… ) in 2011 any day of the week… and twice on Tuesday!
Inside, those Cats featured the hulking 6-10, 275 Josh Harrelson and future NBA starter Terence Jones (6-9, 250), a tandem with considerably more bulk, aggression and scoring punch than our current frontcourt.
As for the 2014 team, it’s all about the inside game: it had Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and a pre-injury Alex Poythress. The current squad counters with Labissiere, post-injury Poythress, and Lee.
Advantage: 2014, and it’s not even close.
After the resurrection two years ago, not giving up on a Calipari-coached team has become an article of faith for me, and I’m sure the same is true for many of you. I won’t slam the door on my hopes until the last ball bounces in March. Still, of the three teams mentioned, I’d have to say this is the tallest order by far for Cal.