ST. LOUIS — The Kentucky Wildcats have pow-wowed, and all are in agreement: John Calipari’s team will open NCAA tournament play against Kansas State on Friday with a singular mission.
“Shock the world,” center Willie Cauley-Stein said.
But would a victory over the fifth-place team from the Big 12 really be all that surprising?
“A lot of people think that we’re not going to make it past the first round,” Cauley-Stein said. “So, yeah, winning the first game would shock the world.”
A few people chuckled at Cauley-Stein’s comment. Others, including his coach, were quick to cringe.
This is what it’s come to for Calipari’s collection of ringers.
Four months ago, they entered the season as the No. 1-ranked team in America. Folks in Lexington were sporting 40-0 shirts and, with 18,000-plus fans cheering him on at Big Blue Madness, Calipari declared, “We don’t just play college basketball—we are college basketball.”
Now the Wildcats are 24-10, the No. 8 seed in the Midwest Region and hoping to “shock the world” by beating a Kansas State outfit that has zero McDonald’s All-Americans or potential first-round draft picks. Kentucky boasts seven of each.
The situation places the Wildcats under a huge amount of pressure.
Beat K-State—and then No. 1 seed Wichita State on Sunday to advance to the Sweet 16—and Kentucky fans will view the 2013-14 campaign with at least some semblance of success. Lose on Friday, however, and the season will go down as a mammoth dud, with the Wildcats failing to win an NCAA tournament game for the second straight year.
“I’ve never coached five freshmen,” Calipari said. “It takes a while.”
Kentucky won an NCAA title in 2012 with a lineup that featured three freshmen starters. But these days the championship seems like an aberration.
Coaching a team full of 18-year-olds, no matter how talented they are, is proving to be far more difficult than Calipari ever realized. Assembling talent is one thing, but getting various pieces to jell, play defense and share the ball—all while blocking out criticism and NBA draft talk—makes his job one of the toughest in America.
In some ways, Bill Self is going through the same thing at Kansas, which started three freshmen for most of the season before Joel Embiid injured his back last month. Kansas has had a solid season, winning a 10th straight Big 12 title and entering the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed.
But the Jayhawks’ next loss will be their 10th—the program’s most since 1999-2000.
Even with the top two potential NBA draft picks in the lineup (Andrew Wiggins and Embiid), this season has been a new experience for the Jayhawks.
“It took us a while for us to get it right and to figure out who we were,” redshirt sophomore Jamari Traylor said. “It definitely had a different feel to it.”
There is more teaching involved, he said, and coaches have to be more patient. One of the biggest struggles for both Self and Calipari has been getting their young charges to embrace playing tough defense.
Kansas ranked fifth or worse in the Big 12 in scoring defense, field-goal percentage defense and three-point percentage defense. The Jayhawks have allowed 90-plus points in two of their last three games.
“At first it’s kind of an awakening,” guard Brannen Greene said. “You think, 'defense isn’t that big of a deal.' But then you realize that defense really does win games. It takes a certain amount of focus to really lock in and play defense.”
Kansas has played well in spurts, but consistency has been an issue.
“I think people (assume) that just because they come in with hype that, automatically in November, they should be better than 21- and 22-year-old men,” Self said. “That doesn’t happen automatically.”
It’s a concept fans don’t understand.
From the moment the horn sounds in the NCAA title game each April, college basketball junkies obsess about the newcomers who will arrive the following season. Suddenly, Wiggins is on the cover of Sports Illustrated and being compared to LeBron James before he ever plays a college game. Kentucky’s recruiting class is being hailed as the best of all time before it ever steps on the court, and people are stalking 18-year-olds for autographs as if they were celebrities.
Media members are guilty, too.
We rank Kentucky No. 1 in the preseason poll and treat the word of recruiting “experts” as gold. Rarely do we consider how difficult it is for a freshman to make a major impact on his team, or at least recognize that it may be late February (and not early November) before he truly gets it.
Instead, we come up with corny features such as "Freshman Watch" to track the newcomers’ progress and then shred them when they have an off-night. Meanwhile, we ignore the very players who are vital to success.
The juniors and seniors.
Take a lot at the hottest teams in the NCAA tournament.
Louisville (Russ Smith), Arizona (Nick Johnson), Wichita State (Cleanthony Early), Michigan State (Adreian Payne) and Florida (four senior starters) are all led by upperclassmen. And only Arizona features freshmen in the starting lineup (Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson).
Those teams were built over time. Young players were able to grow and develop while older guys carried the load.
Kentucky hasn’t had that luxury this season and, for the most part, neither has Kansas. With top stars such as Wiggins, Embiid, and Kentucky’s Julius Randle and James Young likely entering the NBA draft, next year could be more of the same.
“This is our last chance,” said Kansas freshman guard Wayne Selden, another potential first-rounder. “This team will never be together again after this tournament. We’ve got to make it special.”
Kansas could very well do just that.
So could Kentucky.
But the very thing that has led to their inconsistency all season—their youth—is the main factor that makes each team hard to trust.