Last winter, the regal Kentucky men's basketball program got a harsh glimpse into how "the other half" lives.
John Calipari's Wildcats entered the 2012-13 season as the defending NCAA champions and as the No. 3-ranked team in the country in the initial Associated Press poll. The Wildcats finished a slog of a season going 21-12 and losing to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.
This season, with Calipari having replenished the Kentucky roster with an effusively-praised eight-man recruiting class that includes six McDonald's All-Americans, the pre-season prognosticators are forecasting a basketball version of The Empire Strikes Back for the Cats.
Though not a consensus choice, the Wildcats seem the most popular pick to cut down the nets on the season's final Monday night.
Yet to go from NIT to NCAA Final Four in one season's time, UK will have to defy its own modern history.
Path to the NIT: Joe B. Hall lost four starters from his 1975 NCAA Tournament runner-ups, then saw the fifth returning starter, big man Rick Robey, sidelined by an injury midway through the 1975-76 season. After starting 10-10, a sophomore-dominated Kentucky closed the regular season with six straight victories, then won four more and an NIT title.
Empire strikes back: The next season, Robey returned and teamed with classmates Jack Givens, Mike Phillips and James Lee to lead UK to a 26-4 record. North Carolina's four corners attack stopped the Cats one victory short of the NCAA Tournament's Final Four.
Path to the NIT: Hall lost his top four front-court players to graduation from UK's 1978 NCAA championship team. Kentucky struggled much of the year, caught fire in the SEC Tournament and almost won it before falling to Tennessee in overtime in the finals. The Cats then lost to Clemson in Rupp Arena in the first round of the NIT to finish a 19-12 season.
Empire strikes back: With a ballyhooed freshman class led by Sam Bowie and Dirk Minniefield joining star senior guard Kyle Macy, Kentucky reclaimed the SEC regular season crown while going 29-6. But even with playing the NCAA Tournament Mideast Region in Rupp Arena, UK was upset by Duke, 55-54, in the round of 16.
Path to the NIT: Billy Gillispie's second Kentucky team began the SEC schedule 5-0. However, the UK season turned 180 degrees after a dispiriting road loss at Mississippi. The Cats closed by losing nine of their final 13 regular-season games.
With rumors swirling about Gillispie's job security, Kentucky accepted an NIT bid and won two games before falling at Notre Dame in the quarterfinals to finish a lackluster 22-14. Two days later, Gillispie was fired.
Empire strikes back: Hired away from Memphis, new Kentucky coach Calipari brought a massive injection of new talent with him. Freshman stars John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe helped UK to a 35-3 season, but the Cats' national title dreams ended one win short of the Final Four with an upset by West Virginia.
Path to the NIT: After losing the top six players from the 2012 NCAA title team, Calipari's brand new team didn't mesh. The UK coach and transfer point guard Ryan Harrow were not a match. Star freshman big man Nerlens Noel went out for the season in February with a torn ACL. UK took a 21-11 record into the NIT. At Robert Morris, the Cats got outworked by the plucky Colonials and lost 59-57.
Empire strikes back? NBA talent evaluators are giddy over Kentucky's talent level in 2013-14. ESPN.com's Chad Ford has said as many as seven current Cats could go in the first round of the 2014 draft.
It will be fascinating to see if Calipari can meld newcomers like Julius Randle, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, and James Young with returnees such as Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress as seamlessly as he got the hyped recruits and seasoned vets to gel on Kentucky's 2012 NCAA title squad.
Last year, Kentucky went from the penthouse to the outhouse at the speed of light.
This season, we see if Calipari and the Cats can make the reverse trip as rapidly.
When the mighty fall
After starting last season ranked No. 3 in the country, Kentucky ended a season of disappointment by losing to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. Here are the most recent appearances in the post-season NIT for some of the nation's other premier men's basketball programs, and how those schools fared the season following their NIT trips:
Team Most recent NIT (with record) How team fared the next season
Duke 1980-81 (17-13) 10-17, no post-season tournament
Indiana 2004-05 (15-14) 19-12, NCAA Tournament round of 32
Kansas 1968-69 (20-7) 17-9, no post-season tournament
Louisville 2005-06 (21-13) 24-10, NCAA Tournament round of 32
North Carolina 2009-10 (20-17) 29-8, NCAA Tournament round of eight
UCLA 1985-86 (15-14) 25-7, NCAA Tournament round of 32
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.