In the history of the winningest program in college basketball, it was a season like no other. And that’s saying something.
We’ve seen Final Fours - 16 of them, in fact, including three in the past four seasons, thanks to current management.
We’ve seen the Wildcats play in championship games – a dozen, with eight of them resulting in big, shiny trophies headed for Lexington.
And, sad to say for the Big Blue Nation, we’ve seen losses in the title games as well. Rick Pitino’s 1997 team lost to Arizona, which beat three number one seeds en route to the NCAA championship. Joe B. Hall’s 1975 squad was beaten by UCLA in John Wooden’s last game at the helm for the Bruins.
And of course, there was that matchup with Texas Western in 1966. That season ended poorly, as well.
But none of them played out the way this one did. We might never see it again.
Oh, there’s a good chance that John Calipari will be credited with bringing in the nation’s best recruiting class again some day – maybe not this year, but come on – would you be shocked? Of course not. That’s what he does.
And the odds are strong that the Wildcats, under Calipari, will crash another Final Four and perhaps play for a national championship, maybe even win one. But it’s doubtful we’ll witness the same kind of drama that unfolded before our eyes in 2013-14.
To trace the arc, you have to go back to national signing day, when Calipari’s collection of talent congealed, giving him a phenomenally talented recruiting class, potentially the best ever, some said. Some scoffed.
This team could go 40-0, some said. Even more scoffing.
It’ll be the youngest team ever to win the national championship. Scoff, scoff.
And it almost did. On the last night of the regular season, the Wildcats were playing for another big trophy. What in the name of James Naismith was going on here?
In between the scoffing and the mourning came one of the most bizarre seasons in the history of the sport, and we were all witness. Kentucky, however prematurely, was ranked number one in most of the men’s Division I college basketball polls. Nothing new to the program, but not with a roster featuring eight – EIGHT – freshmen.
And they looked good early, playing Baylor, Michigan State and North Carolina into the closing minutes before falling. The losses smudged that potentially perfect record early in the season, so we didn’t have to deal with it for more than six weeks.
A victory over arch-rival Louisville three days after Christmas, just before the start of the Southeastern Conference schedule, proved that all was right with Wildcat World and these youngsters were back on schedule.
Seventeen days later came another smudge, and this one was a nasty sign of things to come, only we didn’t recognize it as such back then. Kentucky lost in overtime at Arkansas, to a team that would fall short of the NCAA tournament. Just a bump in the road, we told ourselves.
Two months later we would hold up that loss, along with another one to the Hogs (in Rupp Arena) and a dumpster fire at South Carolina, as exhibits A, B and C, evidence that this team was overrated and not going anywhere. From the top of the poll to Also Receiving Votes – meaning, the embarrassing drop from the Top 25 was complete.
And then came Atlanta.
Whether it was Calipari’s “tweak,” a return to physically brutal practices or a symbolic shredding of game tapes from the regular season, something took hold of this team and shoved a ramrod up its collective back.
It did an absolute about-face, winning its way to the SEC Tournament title game, falling a slip’n slide from an upset win over Florida for the championship. It energized the BBN. Anything was possible now in the NCAA Tournament.
Then, the selections committee spoke.
An eight seed? In the Midwest? That meant a potential showdown with undefeated Wichita State. And if they survived THAT one, the Cats likely would have to play their arch-rivals from U of L. And if, somehow, they win THAT, well, here comes Duke. Or Michigan. It was going to be brutal.
You know how it turned out.
By the grace of Aaron Harrison’s shooting hand, Kentucky rolled through the Midwest into North Texas. An injury to Willie Cauley-Stein had robbed the Wildcats of one of the two sophomores in their rotation, with freshman Marcus Lee absorbing some of his minutes, making this team even younger. And it kept right on winning.
They dispatched a veteran Wisconsin ballclub to put themselves 40 minutes from glory. Already, the Wildcats had made it a season unlike any other.
Yes, they came up short. Just like Pitino’s ’97 team, and Hall’s ’75 ballclub, missed free throws became Kentucky’s undoing. That, and a sub-par Julius Randle. The double-double machine, thanks to his physical infirmities as well as the Huskies’ defense, could manage merely 10 and six.
The Harrison twins couldn’t consistently protect the ball from UConn’s quicker guards, and the UK team that opened the floor in post season play by making shots could manage only 40 percent from the floor. The Cats just couldn’t get shots to fall when they needed them.
They were still freshmen when the final horn sounded and the confetti fell, a celebratory blizzard for the Huskies and their fans, simply garbage to the BBN. But these young Wildcats had lived a lifetime in a season that started on Oct. 18.
That was the night of Madness. What followed, at times, truly WAS madness. But then came the greatness, part of a season like no other.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)