Young Cats are running out of time
It's March and John Calipari's freshman-laden team is still searching for answers
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- There he stood in a baggy sweat shirt and gray pants three sizes too big. He had a scruffy shadow, a wool hat and a dreary gaze.
Alex Poythress looked tired.
The Wildcats were heroes in the offseason. But once the season started, they failed to meet the expectations that anticipated championships, shattered records and historic heights.
"We just gotta keep on coming together as a team, keep on competing, keep on fighting," he said.
The same philosophy applies today, as the SEC tournament begins. The Wildcats finished the regular season with a 22-9 record and an absence from the top-25 rankings. But Kentucky's disappointing season is not as simple as wins and losses. The merger of remarkable talent and unrestrained expectations spawned an elixir that made most of the college basketball world drunk on Kentucky, as evidenced by its preseason No. 1 ranking.
Right now, the Wildcats don't look like a team that's capable of a lengthy stay in the NCAA tournament, but they'll be invited because of a résumé that features few quality wins and a strong schedule.
They still look good on paper. They carry the nation's top offensive rebounding rate, according to Ken Pomeroy. They have four players averaging double figures. They boast six or seven NBA prospects.
"We gotta get our mojo back," coach John Calipari said during Monday's SEC media teleconference.
The hoopla surrounding Calipari's latest recruiting class seemed valid. No program, not even Kentucky, had ever signed six McDonald's All-Americans: Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young, Dakari Johnson, Julius Randle and Marcus Lee.
But it wasn't the first time that a group of incoming players had attracted such praise.
John Wooden signed NBA and collegiate great Lew Alcindor, who Sporting News writer Mike DeCourcy said was the centerpiece of "the greatest college recruiting class of all time." Steve Fisher orchestrated a movement known as the Fab Five at Michigan. Thad Matta lured Greg Oden, Daequan Cook and Michael Conley Jr. -- three players who were first round picks in the 2007 NBA draft -- to Columbus, Ohio. Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May were all members of the 2002 recruiting class that led North Carolina to the 2005 national title.
This, however, was different.
"On paper, [Kentucky's recruiting class] was as good as just about any," said Dave Telep, former ESPN analyst and current scout for the San Antonio Spurs. "Highest-rated guys in [the] class at multiple positions."
It was the first time such a level of anticipation had accompanied a freshman class in the social media era. Calipari brought them together. And the Twitterverse -- a hodgepodge of hype fueled by fans and analysts -- made them legends, albeit prematurely.
Once the season began, top-ranked Kentucky seemed capable of surpassing the feats of the 2011-12 squad that Anthony Davis led to a national championship. Calipari's claim that, "We are college basketball," during Kentucky's version of Midnight Madness, only added to the frenzy.
"Everybody's saying we were the best freshman class ever," Young said. "Everybody has the biggest expectation of us winning 40-0 or whatever. It's real hard."
At the time, the noise made sense.
Calipari is the don of the one-and-done era. He's quick to suggest that the game would be better if college players had to stay for two seasons.
But his fleet of freshmen have helped him make millions of dollars at Memphis and Kentucky. Derrick Rose, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Davis weren't with him long, but they made an impact. And this abundance of talent in Lexington possessed a similar potency.
The thought that young stars are easy to mold was smashed last season, when Kentucky's year ended with a first-round loss in the NIT. But that finish did little to dilute the early praise of this Wildcats squad, which hasn't had many elite outings beyond an impressive win over Louisville.
The idea that Calipari could just add water and toss everything into a microwave for 90 seconds -- it always seems that easy -- was imprudent, though.
"I think it was humbling to hear from Coach Cal that if I'm not going to play hard or I'm not going to do what he wants me to do, then I'm not going to play," Johnson said. "But I'm just listening to him and learning each and every day. That's the main thing, and I think I'm getting better each and every day."
Again, that's the norm with most young players. But the Wildcats were supposed to skip those steps.
Poythress said adjusting to new roles has been challenging, too.
"It does take a while," he said. "Because in high school you get the ball 50 times; you're shooting 50 shots. But here, you've gotta come together, you've gotta pass the ball, you've gotta share the ball. You're only gonna get 10, maybe eight shots."
Kentucky's 2012 national title team relied on youngsters. But the presence of Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones helped Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Davis shine. The freshmen on that squad didn't have to lead. Miller, a senior, did that. Poythress arrived in Lexington as a top-ranked recruit who most assumed would only remain there for a season. But last year's stumbles changed that.
This year, Poythress is a sophomore reserve and, as one of the most experienced players on the roster, a leader by default.
"It's real tough, but it just comes with maturing," Poythress said. "I'm a year older than them."
And equally perplexed. There is no mesh with this team. No obvious chemistry. It's a bunch of youngsters still struggling to figure things out; that's certainly not unique, but it rarely unfolds under a spotlight this large.
According to preseason expectations, anything short of the Final Four would be deemed a failure for Kentucky. That doesn't sound realistic now. But nothing about this team has ever been realistic.
Calipari has failed thus far. This group should be better and more consistent. The Wildcats have unraveled too many times in the final five minutes of games they could have won. A chunk of the blame should be assigned to coaching.
Prior to that mid-February home loss to Florida in Lexington, Calipari called the matchup a barometer.
"This game will tell us where we are," he said.
But we're still not quite sure where they are. Or where they're going.
The final weeks of the season will give this group its final shot to put it all together.
If Kentucky reaches Dallas, it wouldn't be the first time a team with potential got hot and made a run. That's the entire mantra of the NCAA tournament.
It would still be surprising considering this season's fluctuation.
An early exit is probably the general expectation now, not that it matters to the Wildcats.
"You kind of want to ignore it because you want to hold yourself in a tight circle, don't want to listen to other people, hear what they're saying. Because it gets you off track, gets you distracted," Poythress said. "You just want to stay focused on the goal."
At one point, their goals matched the bloated expectations.
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