LEXINGTON, Ky. – Coaches like to say each season has a life of its own, and nowhere is this more true than in college basketball. Comparing last year’s team to this year’s team is always a fool’s errand. It’s not like in the NBA, where there’s roster continuity and the predictability of veteran play. In college, experienced seniors graduate, green and cocky freshmen come in, disgruntled players transfer and veteran players make massive leaps from one year to the next.
And there’s no team in college basketball (and therefore in all of sports) where comparing this year’s version to another year’s version is a more foolish endeavor than with the Kentucky Wildcats. As John Calipari has embraced the one-and-done era more than anyone during his seven seasons in Lexington, he’s also embraced the most unique challenge in coaching: Throwing everything up in the air at season’s end and starting over from scratch a few months later with a barely recognizable roster.
Foolish or not, I still wanted to know. I’ve had a theory ever since Kentucky got a drubbing at the hands of a struggling Ohio State team right before Christmas: That this team’s path – an enormous amount of preseason hype, some freshmen who didn’t live up to expectations, injury troubles, a group that can switch identities on an almost game-by-game basis from title contender to struggling bubble team and then back again – might be a carbon copy of the 2013-14 team that rode a roller coaster of a season all the way to the national title game.
And so, as John Calipari – looking relaxed after Kentucky’s 25-point home win over Alabama earlier this week, his tie loosened, cracking jokes about how quickly a photograph of injured junior forward Derek Willis’ swollen ankle had gone viral – was marching his program toward what he hopes will be an absurd fifth Final Four in seven years, I asked him just that: Does the trajectory of this group, which has lost seven games this season to less-talented opponents but is still ranked in the top 10 on KenPom.com, remind him of any other team he’s coached in nearly a quarter century as a college coach?
Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer was no. This season is unique, a life unto itself.
This year's Kentucky team is built around its guards -- which makes it the exact opposite of last year's version.
“We’ve got really good guards – like, we have really, really good guards,” Cal replied. “If we can shore up that front line, I like what we have here. As you know, my teams normally, as the year winds down, play their best basketball.”
Most coaches would answer that question the same way, even if they were playing with the exact same roster as the year before. Coaches neither like to live in the past nor project too far ahead. But in Calipari’s answer, there’s something I want to focus on that gets at what is so impressive in how the Calipari Era at Kentucky has turned college basketball on its head.
Last year at this time, what was the buzz about Kentucky’s then-undefeated team that nearly ran the table? That it was one of the most dominant defensive teams in college basketball history. That it had the height of a pretty tall NBA team, with six players 6-foot-9 or taller, including future No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns and shot-blocking savant Willie Cauley-Stein, who would be picked sixth. If there was a deficiency in last season’s team – and to say there was any weakness in that group is a stretch – it was in the inconsistent two starting guards, Andrew and Aaron Harrison.
And this year’s team? It’s literally the exact opposite. Its strength is in the guard play: In diminutive point guard Tyler Ulis, who ought to be in the conversation for national player of the year; in leading scorer Jamal Murray, who can score in more varied ways than any college basketball player this side of Buddy Hield; and in freshman Isaiah Briscoe, whose shooting woes have been well-documented but who makes winning plays in other ways, by getting to the rim and by rebounding from the guard position. Is there a better backcourt in all of college basketball? I can’t think of one.
Yet it’s the frontcourt that has made people wonder about the relative strength of this Kentucky team. It’s way too early to call freshman Skal Labissiere a bust, but the guy who plenty of respected basketball minds thought could be the No. 1 overall pick over Ben Simmons has been a bit player, someone who often looks lost on the court. If Labissiere had come in with half the impact of Towns, Kentucky might be close to unbeatable.
Skal Labissiere was supposed to be another Kentucky freshman phenom, but he's been anything but.
The rest of the frontcourt has been unpredictable, to say the least. Alex Poythress has missed some games with an injury, and when he has played, his inconsistent energy has been the weather vane for this team’s success. Marcus Lee has been Marcus Lee: a limited player, someone who can rebound and block shots but little else. Isaac Humphries has been a nice surprise as of late for Calipari, but I’m not sure if this team will revolve around a still-developing big man who is one of the youngest players in college hoops. Derek Willis’ stretch-four capabilities have been huge for spreading the floor for Ulis and Murray, but his improving defense and rebounding still leave something to be desired – plus he’s currently injured with a sprained ankle.
Last season, Kentucky’s frontcourt terrified college basketball; this season, Kentucky’s frontcourt is its Achilles heel. Last season, Kentucky’s defense was historically good; this season, Kentucky ranks 42nd in defensive efficiency on KenPom.com. (The only Calipari team with a defensive efficiency ranked lower was the 2012-13 team that went to the NIT.)
And yet here we are, days away from March, and one of the biggest questions in college hoops is the same as it is every year: Can Kentucky win it all?
That is a central question of college basketball when Kentucky has a historically good team like last season, or a juggernaut of a recruiting class like next season. It is also a central question of college hoops if Kentucky is struggling mightily as in 2013-14 or has some fairly significant holes like this season’s team.
But amazingly, the answer to that question – Can the Wildcats hang another banner? – is yes. Yes, they can. Every. Single. Year.
“This team got empowered early because of that South Carolina game,” Calipari said, speaking of the big-time road win when he got ejected a couple minutes in. “When I saw that they really don’t need me as much as I think they need me. They ran all the stuff that we work on. They did it without me telling them. They also coached each other. That’s what I want. It’s not just calling plays. It’s that when a guy doesn’t do his job, they should tell each other, not me.”
“That’s where we are with this team,” he continued. “If your guards are really good, you really have a chance to win any game you play.”
It’s true: Kentucky has a chance to win any game it plays, even though this may be the Wildcats team with the most question marks since Calipari came to Lexington. They don’t just have a chance, but a really good chance. That includes this weekend, when they visit a talented Vanderbilt team that needs a big-time win to make the NCAA tournament. And that includes in Houston on April 4, when someone will be cutting down the nets to celebrate the national title.
And that is what is ultimately the most impressive achievement of John Calipari’s career and one of the most impressive achievements in all of coaching today: That even though Calipari has a completely different roster every season – that even though he has about six months from the first practice to the Final Four to reinvent the wheel – his teams are always, always, always on the right path toward cutting down those nets.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.