The Kentucky Wildcats came into the 2013-14 college basketball season ranked No. 1 in both polls, despite the possibility of a starting lineup composed of entirely freshmen. Actually, the Wildcats were ranked No. 1 because of the freshmen that they could potentially start; Kentucky’s current recruiting class is arguably greatest in the history of college basketball. Before the season began, many analysts had the John Calipari-coached Wildcats pegged as their favorite to cut down the nets in April.
Kentucky’s freshman class includes six former five-star recruits in Julius Randle, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Marcus Lee, James Young, and Dakari Johnson. The young guns experienced their first bit of competitive collegiate action against No. 2 Michigan State earlier this week at the United Center in Chicago. Randle led all scorers with 27 points and 13 rebounds, and he re-affirmed his individual potential even in a losing effort.
Despite the early-season loss to MSU, many still view Kentucky as a national title favorite. The Wildcats did manage to battle back against the veteran-laden Spartans, and glimpses of their immense potential wowed a lot of observers — even Tom Izzo acknowledged that Kentucky can round into championship form with some work.
This lineup originally had some pundits – and Kentucky fans themselves – asking whether the Wildcats could actually go undefeated. Three games into the season, that dream has already been dashed by the Spartans, but the goal of winning a national championship remains possible, and even probable in the eyes of many. But not me. Sorry, Kentucky fans, but I’m here to tell you it’s not going to happen — here are five reasons why:
5. SEC Play Won’t Get Them Ready: Take a look at the Wildcats’ SEC schedule — it’s pathetic. No seriously, look at it. That conference schedule is not a consistent grind that will ready a young team for the NCAA tournament. There are literally no other top-level teams in the conference for Kentucky to play — Florida is a solid squad, but that’s about it. UK will spend basically three months walking through a cupcake of a conference schedule – going undefeated in SEC play isn’t out of the question.
Unfortunately, just blowing through weak opponents won’t ready the ‘Cats for the pressure and talent-level of the teams they will face in March. Will they gain confidence? Sure, but they will be in for a rude awakening when the competition level picks up. Teams from the Big Ten and ACC will be battle-tested come tournament play, and Kentucky won’t be able to say the same.
4. Lack of Experienced Leaders: This may seem old-fashioned, but in March, experience can be crucial. In a close game with under a minute to go, would you rather have the ball in the hands of a 19-year-old superstar freshman, or a 22-year-old cerebral senior who has been there a handful of times before? There have been a number of instances in which freshmen have led teams to the national championship, so it’s not entirely impossible. That being said, time and time again, the NCAA tournament has been dominated by upperclassmen, so having them is a proven recipe for success.
Veterans ensure the cohesiveness, consistency, and mental toughness it takes to win in March by setting an example for the young guys each day regarding how to practice and handle themselves. Winning the six games it takes in March to be crowned champion is not easy, and teams need a guiding force or two on the team to get them there.
3. Lighting Won’t Strike Twice: In Kentucky’s national championship season two years ago, Calipari started three freshmen. The idea of winning with such a formula was seen as illogical at the time, because of the difficulty of assimilating so many new pieces at once. While Calipari proved that winning with three freshmen starters could be done, his task is even harder this year with four starting, not to mention numerous freshman reserves.
Pure talent wins many games, but often times it’s experience, poise and leadership that can trump it – even if it is the raw talent of six or seven first round draft picks on one roster.
2. No Anthony Davis This Time: This year, the Wildcats do not have a player with the defensive presence that Davis brought to the court in the 2011-12 championship year. In Davis’ single season with the Wildcats, he averaged a double-double with 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. Yet, that doesn’t even acknowledge his greatest attribute: Davis averaged 4.7 swats per game.
He blocked more shots than any freshman in SEC history with 186 on the year, including six blocks in the national title game. Forget his offensive impact — Davis changed every game with his defensive presence. Opponents feared taking the ball inside (it wasn’t worth trying) and many changed their offenses to avoid him — he single-handedly affected every position on the court. There is no player on Kentucky’s current roster that commands as much respect as Davis received and no one that can bring the type of defense necessary to win a national championship. The Wildcats’ best inside defender? Sophomore Cauley-Stein, and he certainly is no Anthony Davis.
1. Not Mentally Tough: They Wildcats fell to 2-1 on the season, with every possible goal still left to be accomplished (sans the arbitrary goal of running the table), and Calipari said the freshmen were crying in the locker room after the loss to Michigan State. Crying.
Do you think Tom Izzo’s Spartans would have been crying in the locker room if they would have lost to Kentucky in November? Not a chance. Michigan State is a mentally tough team that takes on the characteristics of its head coach, and because of that the Spartans are perennial contenders. March is all about mental toughness. Can you make the big shot? Can you handle the fatigue of playing close to forty games? Can you simply handle the pressure? If the Wildcats are crying over a non-conference loss in November, how are they are going to be mentally strong enough to handle the pressure of multiple tough games against the nation’s best teams when they are making their way through the Big Dance?
Do the Wildcats have time to develop mental toughness before March? Sure they do, but it’s never easy to develop toughness, particularly for nine new guys at the same time. John Calipari’s team simply wasn’t strong enough mentally last year despite another very talented roster — Coach Cal wasn’t able to instill the mindset necessary in his players. This year’s Kentucky team could suffer a similar fate, mainly because Calipari isn’t known as a disciplinarian who gets after his players with tough love. He’s a great coach who recruits talent with the best of them, but he still has more to prove when it comes to routinely making his players mentally strong.
The Wildcats have over three months to grow and realize their potential, but I’m not holding my breath. They may be a title contender, but they won’t be cutting down the nets in 2014.