Last season ended on the highest of notes for the Kentucky Wildcats. They were the last team standing when the last game of the season concluded, earning them their eighth national championship.
Big Blue Nation rejoiced. Some savored No. 8, some were immediately fired up to go get No. 9.
With the incoming 2012 class oozing with talent, it was easy to let one's mind drift towards thoughts of a repeat.
The struggles that this team has dealt with were unforeseen at the time. The loss to a veteran Duke team on Nov. 13 could be dismissed as a learning experience.
Everyone was just waiting on the young 'Cats to gel.
As the season progressed, there were red flags, though.
There was the hard-fought struggle at home against Morehead State back on Nov. 21. Yes, Sean Woods was fired up (was he ever) to beat his alma mater, but the game remained in doubt much longer than anyone would have anticipated.
The following game, a 29-point win over LIU-Brooklyn on Nov. 23, saw the Blackbirds score 43 points in the first half.
After setbacks against Notre Dame, Baylor and a sluggish performance against Samford, Camp Cal went into full effect.
Three straight wins and a narrow loss at Louisville in which they showed more heart and toughness than they had all season seemed promising.
It appeared as if things may have finally gotten back on track.
The 83-71 home loss to Texas A&M on Jan. 12 jolted everyone's perspective once again. Elston Turner Jr. did whatever he wanted to do whenever he wanted to do it on his way to an epic 40-point performance.
The offensive woes in the second half down in Tuscaloosa were puzzling as Kentucky's nine-point lead withered away in a 59-55 loss to Alabama on Jan. 22. It was reminiscent of UK's win over Vanderbilt where they were fortunate to leave Nashville with a 60-58 win.
A bounce-back win over LSU was accompanied by an impressive performance from Alex Poythress. The 6' 7" freshman had 20 points and 12 rebounds—definitely a welcome sight.
All of this brings us to Ole Miss (17-2, 6-0 SEC). The Rebels are legit. Their average margin of victory is 16.4 points per game. Junior guard Marshall Henderson leads the SEC in scoring at 19.2 points per game. Murphy Holloway is ninth at 14.8 points per outing and also leads the league in rebounding, averaging 10.4 a game.
Perimeter players have had more than their fair share of success against UK this season. The show Elston Turner Jr. put on speaks for itself. However, even Tennessee's Jordan McRae poured in 26 as he led an offensively challenged Vols attack.
Rest assured that this fact isn't lost on Ole Miss' Henderson. If Kentucky fails to get in his hip pocket the minute they cross the Mississippi state line, they could be in for a rough evening.
It could be a replay of the Elston Turner Jr. show minus the class. Henderson isn't the least bit afraid to showboat and hot dog a little once he gets it rolling.
It's been a case of the blind leading the blind for UK this season. Kyle Wiltjer saw some minutes last year and Nerlens Noel is trying to lead by word and deed. The problem is that there has been too much inexperience for them to overcome to win on a consistent basis thus far. It manifests itself in different ways.
At times it's a lack of focus, sometimes it's a lack of effort or bad decisions or a mixture of all of the above.
Gone are Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller. A steady senior and talented sophomores would go a long way toward curing this team's ills.
Those guys aren't coming back; these guys have to keep working and figure it out.
The season is at a crossroads. This group can continue to be inconsistent, come together and play to its potential (whatever that is) or overachieve and put it all together and make a surprising run.
It's all up to them. We're all just watching to see how this roller coaster ride ends.
Stats via secdigitalnetwork.com, accurate as of 1/29/13.