As Kentucky players celebrated together two years ago at the New Orleans Superdome while confetti fell from the rafters all around them, John Calipari's one-and-done model seemed to be unassailable.
Two previous freshman-heavy Kentucky teams had narrowly missed delivering Calipari's first national championship. Then on that memorable April night in 2012, a third Wildcats team loaded with highly rated newcomers accomplished that goal, outclassing Kansas in the title game and showing a rare blend of talent and unselfishness in the process.
If back then it appeared Calipari had found a formula to produce a title contender almost every season, the failures of Kentucky's subsequent two teams serve as reminders that winning with freshmen who leave after a year is not as easy as the 2012 team made it look.
Last year's team lacked veteran leadership, lost its center to a February knee injury and crashed out of NCAA tournament contention down the stretch, ultimately suffering the indignity of an opening round NIT loss to Robert Morris. This season's team will be remembered as perhaps an even greater disappointment unless it somehow manages to catch fire during the postseason.
Instead of bouncing back from Thursday's stunning home loss to Arkansas, Kentucky fell at rebuilding South Carolina 72-67 on Saturday in a game it trailed by as many as 16 points midway through the second half. Not only have the Wildcats now lost eight games after beginning the year amid talk of a perfect season, they've also dropped three of four with the only win coming in overtime against LSU.
What was especially disconcerting was the way Kentucky performed during most of the South Carolina game.
Julius Randle made only one field goal and the rest of his teammates shot poorly as well as the Wildcats sank only 26.9 percent from the field. Were it not for their ability to gobble up offensive rebounds and to get to the foul line 42 times, they might have lost by 20 or 30 points.
The frustration was most evident in the sideline antics of Calipari, who screamed at his players and rapid-fire subbed before getting himself ejected for stepping onto the court to argue a call midway through the second half. The Wildcats actually made the entirety of their late surge with Calipari in the locker room, a point he addressed on his post-game radio show on Lexington-based WHAS.
"I told them afterward, 'You guys became player-driven and were talking to yourselves to get you going," Calipari said. "That's what I'm trying to get them to play like when I'm sitting on the bench. They're counting on me too much. And again, they're immature. Things don't go their way. They're looking for excuses. But they showed in those 10 minutes they're good enough. They did it against Arkansas too. But we've got to play 40 minutes that way."
Talent isn't the issue for this Kentucky team even if some of the young Wildcats likely were a bit too generously evaluated coming out of high school. This team still has plenty of raw ability to win a national championship, but a lacks everything from confidence, to focus, to perseverance.
Their point guard play is erratic. They can't consistently get the ball to Randle in spots where he can score. They sometimes play selfishly. They only focus on playing defense in spurts, especially when their shots aren't falling. And that's pretty often because they aren't a particularly consistent perimeter shooting team either.
The 2011-12 team had chemistry and intangibles to go with its immense talent.
Its two best players, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, were content to function as role players, do all the dirty work defensively and allow their teammates to take the most shots. That team also had a senior leader in Darius Miller and an energy guy in Kidd-Gilchrist who refused to let his teammates take plays off.
On the night of the 2012 national championship game, as Calipari talked openly about taking aim at a 40-0 season someday, such talk appeared ambitious but not entirely unrealistic given the trajectory of the program.
Looking back, however, that team set an impossibly high bar.
Calipari's one-and-done model will surely produce more title-contending teams and it may even generate another national championship, but the past two seasons are reminders that as with any system, the special years are more exception than norm.
There will be some boom years. There will also be some busts.
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