The ghosts of 2014 have hovered over this Kentucky basketball season, but after the win at West Virginia, the 2014 story of resurrection and renewal seemed realistic -- not guaranteed, but a lot more credible than before that 17-point comeback.
Last week, the hope of a 2014-style bounce-back took a hit. This week, it got knocked to the canvas.
It's not worth completely writing off Kentucky this season, if only because no one would consider Virginia a lock to go to the Final Four even if the Cavaliers are the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. On a broader level, the consistent level of carnage occurring around the country -- with unranked teams beating top-10 teams, sometimes on the road -- points to a completely crazy March in which a 10 seed could go to San Antonio.
That's why Kentucky still has a chance -- not because it is likely to make a charge, but because the top seeds are not inspiring confidence. (Quick poll: Who would trust Auburn, Texas Tech, Clemson and Tennessee to make the Elite Eight or take one step beyond that to the Final Four? Some will, but most won't.) Busted brackets could open the door for Kentucky... or a dozen other mid-level seeds in the 8-9 or 7-10 or 6-11 games.
Yet, beyond that puncher's chance, it is beyond obvious by now that Kentucky will gain a seed lower than 4 (to be generous), and could very possibly fall into an 8-9 game again. No one would fancy UK's chances at Auburn this week. The realistic aspiration for the season is to successfully defend Rupp Arena -- Missouri and Alabama would represent valuable wins -- and at least get to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, which would likely mean two wins, one in the second round and one in the quarterfinals. That level of achievement is realistic and not a bunch of sunshine pumping optimism which fails to square with the situation on the ground. Yet, that level of achievement might also be enough to give Kentucky a 7 seed, which avoids the 8-9 game and a date with a 1 seed (such as Villanova or Michigan State) on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Enough about Kentucky's seeding situation in March. (Note: Kentucky is not in immediate bubble danger. Have you seen how atrocious the bubble, minus Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State, and a few select others performed this past weekend? Kentucky is safe. Should the Cats lose each of their next three games? Okay, then we can revisit the topic.)
What is worth discussing during this dark time in the John Calipari era is the larger context in which these struggles occur.
The 2011 season had some bumpy moments before Cal brought everything together in March, chiefly in the Sweet 16 against Ohio State. The 2013 NIT season was, of course, the ultimate, off-the-rails disaster which this season could have become had UK lost to West Virginia. (That win is the massive brick wall which will prevent Kentucky from falling into the NIT moat this season, barring a total continued freefall in February.)
Many people outside the Commonwealth of Kentucky might have been surprised to learn that Saturday night's loss to Texas A&M marked the Wildcats' first three-game losing streak since Calipari came aboard in the fall of 2009. Those people probably -- and logically -- thought that in 2014, 2011, or especially the sad journey to the NIT in 2013, Kentucky dropped three in a row, but it didn't happen.
A few "three losses in four games" sequences occurred, but never a 3-L streak on the standings page... not until now.
That's 8.5 years without a three-game losing streak. Even at one of the richest, most storied programs in college basketball, that's hugely impressive.
It is true that in the six seasons since the 2012 national championship season, Kentucky is headed for a fourth season without a top-three NCAA seed. It is true that last season, a partial reason for Kentucky's No. 2 seed was that the SEC had not developed to the extent it has this year. The Wildcats found soft landings that don't exist in the conference this season. These and other mixtures of fact and context can -- when accumulated -- create the idea that Kentucky has no guarantees of remaining an elite team in college basketball.
While those worries shouldn't be reflexively dismissed without at least hearing the skeptic's worst-case scenario, an overreaction should also not be made -- not against Calipari, not against the health of the UK program, and not against the one-and-done model.
Recent columns pointed out that Duke and Mike Krzyzewski have made two Final Fours since 2004. What is also worth noting about Duke is that it has failed to get past the Sweet 16 in each of the last two seasons, and seems headed for a similar fate this year with a defense which -- like Grayson Allen's game -- simply isn't improving.
Michigan State doesn't use a one-and-done model, but Tom Izzo has made one Final Four since 2010.
North Carolina is defending national champion, but from 2010 through 2015 -- a period of six seasons -- Roy Williams did not make the Final Four.
Bill Self has won 13 straight Big 12 titles at Kansas, but he has only two Final Fours in his KU tenure, and -- beyond that -- only two Final Fours in a coaching career which extends into the previous century.
I could go on, but those examples should be enough to convey the following point: While at least one blue-blood program generally makes the Final Four each year, it is not generally the same program. It remains extremely hard for one program to lock down the Final Four and make it its own personal property.
Elite programs can and do enjoy three-, four-, or five-year periods in which they get on a roll. For Calipari, 2011-2015 produced four Final Four trips around that NIT outlier. Izzo and Michigan State made three straight Final Fours at the turn of the century. North Carolina made three Final Fours and an Elite Eight with two national titles from 2005-2009. Yes, strong classes with elite leaders can bring a tidal wave of riches.
Yet, history persistently and stubbornly shows that -- over 10- and 15-year periods, not four or five -- it remains extremely difficult to replicate John Wooden's UCLA with a 68-team NCAA field, as opposed to the 25-team field Wooden had when he dominated the sport at a level no one has before or since.
Fans should be frustrated with this Kentucky team. The inconvenient truth about frustrating seasons is that they happen everywhere -- at Kansas, more in March than in the regular season, but they pervasively happen. Moreover, a number of teams which flourished in recent seasons -- Wisconsin most prominently, plus UConn (a team which twice denied Calipari and UK at a Final Four this decade), Syracuse and now South Carolina -- have fallen to the point that they will not make the NCAA Tournament this season, barring an automatic bid in a conference tournament.
Those schools all made the Final Four at some point from 2014 through 2017, and are now in very difficult positions -- not just in 2018, but for the future (with South Carolina possibly being the one exception in the group).
Kentucky's problems, as noticeable as they are, pale in comparison to those programs.
More perspective: North Carolina and Villanova played an 8-9 game in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. They won the last two national titles and have cranked out conference championships and high-end seeds in the years since.
Still more perspective: One year after being an 8 seed in the NCAAs (a terrible result for Kentucky, even though the 2014 team undid that mess by rolling to the national title game), John Calipari authored his best (not his most successful, but his best) start-to-finish season, the 38-1 joyride which fell just short of completion.
I know it is not in the DNA or the vocabulary of Kentucky basketball fans to say, "It's hard to win and it's not going to come together all the time," but... human life and the NCAA Tournament have their limits. This doesn't mean the 2018 roster's failings should be easily or calmly accepted. It does mean that Kentucky is not uniquely exempt from the laws of college basketball physics. This demands better recruiting, and it also demands a more deft touch by Calipari on the transfer market, especially in terms of finding knockdown shooters. This demands better, more strategic thinking by Kentucky's head coach.
What this DOESN'T demand: Endless prattle about how Cal's methods aren't working or haven't lived up to expectations.
Don't be THAT GUY. Don't think THAT WAY.
This is not the time for revisionism and hysteria. It's a time to be grateful that it took 8.5 years for a three-game losing streak to happen... and to hope that Calipari will respond in ways that ensure it will be at least 8.5 years until the next 3-L hits the newspapers.
Calipari's Hall of Fame credentials suggest that trusting him at this troubled time is not only a rational inclination; it's the only reasonable one on the board.