Kentucky basketball fans recall the dire and depressing moments from the past several basketball seasons -- not because they marked final verdicts on Big Blue teams in a given year, but because the Wildcats were able to bounce back from them.
Recall getting hammered at Florida last year. Kentucky bounced back.
Recall losing to South Carolina near the end of the regular season in 2014. The Wildcats made the national championship game and caused the many writers who had written them off to eat their words.
The 2011 team was a four seed but played its best basketball in March, putting a regular season of uneven moments in the rearview mirror, en route to the Final Four in a hugely pivotal season for John Calipari's tenure in Lexington.
This is the risk welcomed and courted by one-and-done rosters dominated by underclassmen: There will be bumps in the road -- not that Kansas and North Carolina don't have them, but many Kentucky teams under Coach Cal fight battles that are a little more conspicuously difficult. Some UK teams this decade become heavyweights and stay that way -- 2010, 2012, and 2015 -- but slightly more are works in progress.
The adversity is meant to happen. Calipari -- whose penchant for player development is well known in the industry -- loves being able to show his players what hardship looks like instead of having to strain to convince his players (in the midst of early-season wins) that their performance will catch up with them sooner rather than later.
"Sooner" has already come. Kentucky's youthful hoopsters have seen, up close and personal, how and why they must acquire a noticeably higher level of performance if they are to reach this season's goals.
This is a moment laden with an undeniable degree of tension and apprehension, but it is the moment most Kentucky teams under Calipari have to go through -- and learn from -- if they want to be great. From that vantage point, might as well confront the beast earlier in the season, so that the rest of the journey can be more fulfilling.
Don't expect recurrences of 2014, in which a team can flounder through February, flip the switch, and storm the palace gates in March. Kentucky has to build back its foundation starting this week.
The Tennessee Volunteers showed that UK's foundation wasn't much to begin with.
It was a treat to see Kentucky roar past Louisville, but much as shooting 30-footers isn't sustainable -- analysts call it "fool's gold" -- that blowout of the Cardinals contained the seeds of an eventual letdown. Louisville didn't necessarily quit in that game, but the Cardinals showed a very surprising inability to play with focus or intelligence for the final 25 minutes of that game. The Cardinals didn't value the ball or exhibit remotely reasonable shot selection. They drifted in a state of panic mixed with fogginess. Scattered and distracted, they never found their bearings in the final minutes of the first half or at any point in the second half. Kentucky seized on UL's weakness and went in for a very clean, very quick kill. The occasion was a lot of fun, but to be brutally honest, UK needed a Rick Pitino-level test. (Louisville will surely hunt for a big-time coach next season, which should revive a rivalry which fell flat on the final Friday of 2017.) The lack of a challenge truly showed up this past Saturday night in Knoxville, where a desperate and good Tennessee team exposed the Wildcats' limitations.
Kentucky had been getting by against Louisville, Georgia and LSU without substantial production from Nick Richards and especially Kevin Knox. Hamidou Diallo surged earlier in December but is now scuffling to an extent. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander -- by ruthlessly taking the ball to the hoop and playing with noticeably increased clarity -- carried the Cats against Louisville and Georgia, and P.J. Washington answered the call against LSU on a night when Kentucky played resolutely and with strength (just not a lot of elegance). However, LSU executed poorly down the stretch and showed why it is likely to be a lower-half team in the 14-member SEC. Kentucky was winning without its best stuff.
Maybe the SEC wasn't going to be quite as deep, quite as tough, quite as daunting as the preseason predictions suggested. (Side note: That statement still might be true, though we have two full months of hoops to tell the tale, one way or the other.)
Tennessee gave Kentucky a splash of cold water.
In the first half, the Wildcats were the aggressors, but even though their rim protection was superb and they had a defensive answer for the Vols in the opening 20 minutes, they still weren't getting the shotmaking and playmaking from Knox and Diallo that they need to become a No. 1 seed-level team, the best iteration of Kentucky. Being able to sweep a road pair of games this past week and move to 3-0 in the SEC would have been a coup, and with Tennessee a bad half away from going 0-3 in the conference to join suddenly disappointing Texas A&M, there was a chance for Kentucky to gain significant leverage in the league race.
Those second 20 minutes in Knoxville gave the Wildcats a very clear answer: They're nowhere close to taking over the SEC, even with A&M's and Alabama's problems and the 1-2 starts by Arkansas and the Vols.
Kentucky played that second half in the Tommy Bowl the way Louisville played the second half in Rupp Arena. It's not as though players weren't trying, but they did look lost. Tennessee continuously routed the ball to the elbow and free throw line areas, then making a pass or drive through the middle of the paint straight to the basket for a layup or dunk. The directness, simplicity and ease with which Tennessee scored in its decisive push was the worst defensive sequence for Kentucky in quite some time. Last year, when Kentucky struggled to defend, Malik Monk and the offense came alive.
Diallo and Gilgeous-Alexander, with help from Washington, occasionally do that this season, but Knox -- the man meant to fill Monk's shoes -- remains in a funk, an indication of how urgent it is for him to find his game and become the bridge to a better season. Diallo needs to be there until Knox finds the rhythm and harmony he currently lacks. Richards and also Wenyen Gabriel took forward steps this past week, showing greater fortitude and competence, but those qualities aren't 100-percent constant. Accordingly, Kentucky has to work to become a supremely resourceful defensive team. An offense will have lapses, but as last season's team showed, defense can anchor a team even in the midst of rockfights and slugfests such as the NCAA Tournament game against Wichita State. Therefore, the first point of focus is for UK to never be outfought and outworked the way it was in the second half against Tennessee. To that extent, this is the teaching point which could set the stage for yet another midwinter revival of a John Calipari team.
In time, though, Diallo and Knox have to refine their offensive games to the point that they won't drift and can command attention from defenses in ways that carry better and more lasting consequences for Kentucky.
"The moment" has arrived for Big Blue. Now we'll get to see how these players respond. The situation possesses its share of doubts and frailties, but if history is a guide, this is when Calipari is at his best, and his players begin to fully absorb the message of how to be complete, rugged, resourceful, two-way basketball players.
It's time for another Kentucky team to display the full measure of its competitive excellence.