John Clay

John Calipari’s high-wire act is teetering a bit this season

Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari reacts during his team’s 66-64 loss to the Florida Gators at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018.
Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari reacts during his team’s 66-64 loss to the Florida Gators at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018. aslitz@herald-leader.com

Picture it now on Selection Sunday as the powers that be on the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee slowly pull back the curtain on the 2018 draw.

Suddenly your must-be-lying eyes focus on one particular bracket that shows Duke as a No. 1 seed and right below sits Kentucky as a No. 8 seed.

Yikes, you’ll say. Rigged, you’ll say. TV strikes again, you’ll say. No. 1 seed Duke vs. No. 8 seed Kentucky in a second-round NCAA matchup. As crazy as that would have sounded in the way-back machine of the preseason, right now you’d have to say it’s at least a possibility.

Here’s the thing about what John Calipari has done at Kentucky: It’s a high-wire act. Through eight seasons, the UK coach has tiptoed the tightrope in amazing fashion, producing an NCAA title, two championship game appearances, four Final Fours and six Elite Eights while basing his recruiting on players who stay in college just one season.

That success and strategy are both difficult to maintain, however. We’re finding that out this season. Even with one-and-dones, some freshman classes are better than others. And if you’re lucky, most years you’ll have at least a couple of experienced upperclassmen to show the way. Some years, you don’t.

That’s not say that after the 66-64 loss to Florida on Saturday, I’m ready to throw in the towel on this particular Kentucky basketball team. As I wrote recently, I see it as a Sweet 16 team. Despite the back-to-back losses to South Carolina and the Gators, I’m holding firm to that. It’s just that each defeat added to the résumé makes it that much more difficult for the Cats to make it out of the tournament’s first weekend.

And there will be more losses. The Cats are 14-5 overall and 4-3 in the league. They are 3-4 in games away from Rupp Arena. They were 0-2 against AP Top 25 teams at the time of the game. They have not beaten a team that is in the current top 25.

They have some rough road games remaining, starting Saturday at West Virginia, aka Press Virginia. What is one of UK’s current weaknesses? Turnovers. (The Cats committed 16 Saturday, including six walking violations.) What does Bob Huggins’ teams do better than anything else? Turn opposing teams over. It could get ugly.

On Feb. 10, UK visits a Texas A&M team it beat by just a point in Lexington — I’m guessing A&M Coach Billy Kennedy had no problem with the no-call at the end of UK-Florida — that has talent and has won two straight.

On Feb. 14, UK visits an Auburn team which is the surprise of the SEC. Bruce Pearl’s Tigers are 17-2 overall and 5-1 in the conference. They steamrolled visiting Georgia 53-25 in the second half Saturday on the way to a 79-65 win.

On Feb. 20, UK visits Arkansas, which is 3-1 against the Cats in Bud Walton Arena since Calipari arrived in Lexington. The Razorbacks always seems to play well in Fayetteville.

The regular-season finale March 3 brings the rematch with Florida, this time in Gainesville. If the Gators can shoot 33.3 percent and beat the Cats in Rupp, what might they do in the Sunshine State? Last season, UK lost 88-66 to Mike White’s team in the renovated O-Dome.

At least before that Florida game, Kentucky fans won’t have to watch another top recruiting target commit to Duke. In a surprise move, South Carolina super prospect Zion Williamson put on the Blue Devils’ hat Saturday, disappointing Clemson, South Carolina and Kentucky and adding to the narrative that Mike Krzyzewski has officially supplanted Calipari as the king of the one-and-done.

Which brings us back to our earlier point. Basing your success on freshmen can be a risky strategy. You have to sign the best freshmen and mix in with a couple of veterans. When you do, the sky’s the limit. When you don’t, you could be looking at a rough early NCAA matchup.

Next game

Mississippi State at Kentucky

9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)

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