More than a month before Big Blue Madness, John Calipari tried to explain the challenge he anticipated in trying to fashion a college basketball team — make that a Kentucky basketball team — out of freshmen and nondescript veterans. Even though recognized as a master of reliance on one-and-done players, he seemed taken aback.
“This is a totally different deal,” he said. “This is kind of what we had in 2014 where you have a good group of kids. You have a talented group of kids. But they’re not ready to win basketball games.”
Of course, UK’s 2013-14 team was similarly dependent on freshmen. The top four scorers were freshmen, as were six of the top eight. Kentucky struggled through much of the regular season, as evidenced by a 1-6 record against ranked opponents. Then with Calipari touting a “tweak,” the Cats made an improbable Final Four run that ended with a 60-54 loss to Connecticut in the national championship game.
Now, with UK coming off a disheartening loss to UCLA and approaching a game against archrival Louisville, should the Big Blue Nation expect the history of 2013-14 to repeat itself? Will a season of toil and trouble set up another happy ending?
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“Obviously, both (teams) are very dependent on freshmen,” said Jon Hood, a senior in 2013-14. “But I don’t think the comparison goes very far past that.”
Hood, whose play off the bench sparked a UK victory at Mississippi State that season, suggested that the current Cats might be further along the developmental curve in one respect. This season’s team has a better sense of its approach to playing basketball, he said.
“It’s kind of different every game,” Hood said in echoing Calipari’s emphasis on experimentation so far this season. “The common denominator is driving the ball.”
Kentucky’s team in 2013-14 did not find its identity until the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Hood said. This was evidenced by losses in three of the final four regular-season games, a tailspin that reached its nadir in a 72-67 loss at 13th-place South Carolina.
“We had a bunch of versatile guys who could do a wide variety of things very well,” Hood said. “We tried multiple things throughout the year. And it took until near the end of the year to find what type of game plan fit everyone’s skill set.”
Calipari, ever the marketer, trumpeted the “tweak,” which he cleverly refused to identify publicly, thus tantalizing the customers.
Hood said the tweak was Calipari giving point guard Andrew Harrison a freer rein to play.
“We found out that Andrew Harrison could run the team ... ,” Hood said. “I’d just say him being a coach on the floor. Him just being Andrew, which has done him pretty well.”
Former standout Mike Pratt, then as now the analyst on radio broadcasts of UK games, suggested that Julius Randle was another reason the comparison to 2013-14 is shaky. Randle, one of two UK players to average a double-double since Kenny Walker in 1984-85, gave the 2013-14 team an inside presence that the current Cats have not yet developed.
“Julius was a bear,” Pratt said. “He was a big dude. ... He owned the glass. He was a man in there as a freshman.”
As for the current Cats, Calipari continues to lament the rebounds that have not been secured.
Hood suggested that Kentucky has a wing-oriented team this season as opposed to the Randle-centric Cats of 2013-14.
Another difference is in three-point shooting. The current Cats so far shoot threes slightly less often but with better accuracy: 36 percent. In 2013-14, UK’s 33.2-percent shooting from beyond the arc was the second-worst accuracy in Calipari’s first eight seasons as coach. The 2009-10 Cats made 33.1 percent of their threes.
A third big difference: expectations. The current Cats have been deemed as handicapped by inexperience. And Calipari has decried how the players are under-appreciated by those who appraise NBA Draft prospects.
Hood recalled runaway enthusiasm in the preseason in 2013-14. “I remember talk of 40-0 at the beginning of the year,” he said. “As a senior, I thought it was nonsense.”
It was. As with the current Cats, Kentucky lost in November in the Champions Classic in Chicago: then against No. 2 Michigan State, this season to No. 3 Kansas.
A reasonable person would say it’s too early to draw comparisons. Hood sounded like such a person. Setting aside comparisons to 2013-14, he suggested the UK team of today probably will not be the UK team in the NCAA Tournament. The reason is the basketball-only life for players between semesters, aka Camp Cal.
“Being able to do three-a-days between semesters is so valuable,” Hood said. “So, so valuable for freshmen. No school. No tutors. No nothing. You are there as long as Cal wants you there. And that’s when you learn.”
Louisville at Kentucky
1 p.m. (CBS-27)