SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Kentucky basketball seemed to be back to its royal status as soon as John Calipari was hired a year ago.
The rock star stature of its coach within the Commonwealth and the Wildcat diaspora spread throughout the world believed that the program had returned to its rightful place among the elite as soon as the NBA-ready players arrived, too.
The loss to West Virginia in the Elite Eight Saturday night at the Carrier Dome prevented a coronation. But it shouldn’t be a sign that there is any sort of regression. Kentucky is back, and as long as Calipari is on board there won’t be a significant slide, even with the likely early departures for the NBA for three, possibly four, of the key contributors – freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe and junior Patrick Patterson.
“My teammates and myself are proud of what we accomplished this year,’’ Patterson said in a glum locker room following a 73-66 loss by No. 1 seed Kentucky to No. 2 seed West Virginia in the East Regional final. “We’re not satisfied (with losing in the Elite Eight). We know this is a stepping stone to getting Kentucky back to being a national powerhouse like it was in the years before. Hopefully the teams ahead of us can do it.’’
No one can deny what Calipari did this season in assembling the greatest late signing period class in modern times. Calipari checked egos at the door with this crew, managed minutes, coached a team that could win an uptempo game or in the halfcourt. By the end of the season, they played defense with purpose and passion and won close road games in hostile SEC environments.
You can’t deny the energy that was in Rupp Arena this season. It was palpable. From Midnight Madness in October to the opening tip against Morehead State in November to the regular-season finale against Florida in March.
“We did a lot of successful things this year but we didn’t get the main goal and that was winning a national championship,’’ Cousins said. “I’ve never had this much fun in my life. I wish it would have ended up on a good note for the returning players like Perry (Stevenson), Ramon (Harris) and Patrick who had been through hell the past two seasons. I wish we could have ended it on a good note.’’
The Billy Gillispie era the previous two seasons wasn’t good to watch or enjoyable for the players. Patterson spoke openly about the difference during Friday’s off-day media session. There was chaos throughout last season’s NIT bid. Practices were laborious, not intensely fun. Calipari brought joy back for the returning players while meshing in the celebrated newcomers.
Wall’s beautiful game -- from beating Miami (Ohio), to taking down Connecticut in New York, to his play throughout the SEC -- was something to behold at times. To watch the maturation of Cousins from a hot-tempered man-child to a much more refined post presence was a credit to Calipari and the staff. Cousins was overwhelmingly appreciative of how much Calipari helped him mature and evolve as a player. Wall and Patterson spoke Friday about how Cousins popped off early in the season when pushed and prodded, and how he figured out how to stay on the floor and ignore the temptation to return to aggression.
The fast-breaks, the turnovers, the overall enthusiasm for Kentucky basketball weren’t just good for the Commonwealth this season, but for the sport. College basketball needs Kentucky to be great, just like it needs Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, UCLA and Syracuse to matter. It’s tremendous for basketball when new powers, like Butler, are formed. Or when old ones, like West Virginia and Kansas State, are tapped. Or a newly consistent presence, like Michigan State, emerges. But Kentucky has to be relevant for the overall health of the sport. The lightning rod of the sport is still better off when it’s up than being pounded down.
“Everybody put egos aside for this team to make it this far,’’ Bledsoe said. “I’ll look back at this as a special year.’’
Even if Kentucky takes a major hit from the draft, you can guarantee Calipari will reload quickly with some of the top players in 2010 and beyond.
“I’m proud of my team, they fought and they just kept trying,’’ Calipari said. “I’m proud of what they’ve done all season, a bunch of young kids that just came together.’’
The Wildcats couldn’t solve West Virginia’s 1-3-1 zone. They gave up 10 3s and made only 4 of 32 themselves. They didn’t play with the same defensive lock-down mentality that they had against Cornell in the Sweet 16 or even close to what they had against Wake Forest in round two. West Virginia was the better team Saturday night.
Bottom line: Kentucky failed to reach its expectations for this particular group, and they likely won’t be together next season. The window was open for a national title, or at the least the first trip to the Final Four since 1998. But as long as Calipari stays in Lexington, there will be an annual run toward the title. That’s what is expected in Chapel Hill and Durham and always has been the norm in Lexington. Now it should be a reality.