A Kentucky team that spent much of the regular season trying to find itself, struggling to win on the road, blowing leads and doing just enough to win, found itself in time to set things right and take aim at March Madness and the Final Four, played this year in Houston. The Cats came up short, but still…
Deja Blue, anyone?
It was five years ago that the Wildcats surprised even the ever-optimistic Big Blue Nation with a trip to the final four– in Houston. That was a ballclub which featured Brandon Knight, De’Andre Liggins, Terence Jones and Darius Miller. What it did NOT have were John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins, who had moved on to the NBA, leaving John Calipari to find a way to blend new talent with returning vets.
It all worked – eventually – just as it did this season with Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray, Isaiah Briscoe and the gang, although to their dismay, and that of the Big Blue Nation, they were left standing on the side of the Road to the Final Four.
Skipping back through the NCAA Tournament, five years at a time, can jog some memories…
2010-11 — The Wildcats finished 29-9 that season, a credible 10-6 in the Southeastern Conference. But all six losses were on the road, the last coming at Arkansas 10 days before the regular season finale.
Something clicked after that, Kentucky rolling to nine straight victories, including an SEC Tournament title with an upset win over top-seeded Florida.
Then came East Regional upsets of Ohio State and North Carolina (remember the huge three by Liggins?) as the Wildcats won their way to the Final Four, where they lost to Kemba Walker and Connecticut in the semifinals.
2005-06 — The Cats struggled to a 22-13 record, but made the tournament as a #8 seed in the East regional. After a first round win over Alabama-Birmingham, the Kentucky squared off with top seeded Connecticut and gave the Huskies everything they could handle. Patrick Sparks turned in one of his finest performances with 28 points, five steals and three assists, but the Cats fell, 87-83.
2000-01 — Behind SEC Player of the Year Tayshaun Prince, the Wildcats won a share of the SEC regular season title and then breezed through the conference tournament again, earning a #2 seed in the East Region.
They won their way to the round of 16 but that’s where they stumbled, losing to Southern California in the regional semifinal.
The loss deprived the college basketball world of a potential rematch with top-seeded Duke in the East final – in Philadelphia, of all places. That’s where that guy named Laettner hit that shot a few years back. You know the one.
1995-96 — The Cats celebrated their sixth national championship in the Meadowlands, where Rick Pitino’s team knocked off Syracuse for Kentucky’s first NCAA title in 18 years. Victory seemed inevitable, but the Orange actually made it tough on the Blue.
Led by future NBA player John Wallace, Syracuse was a surprise participant in the Final Four, emerging from the West as a #4 seed, taking full advantage when top-seeded Purdue suffered a second-round upset loss to Georgia – coached by Tubby Smith who, two years later, would help deliver another national title to the Wildcats.
In the first Final Four semifinal game, the Orange made the title game by outlasting Mississippi State. In the other, Marcus Camby and Massachusetts, coached by a young man named John Calipari, gave the Cats all they wanted before Kentucky prevailed, 81-74.
And on Monday night in the championship game, Tony Delk pumped in seven 3-pointers, off-setting a huge game by Wallace, who delivered 29 points and 10 rebounds. The Wildcats won it, 76-67. Kentucky was king again.
1990-91 — Winning in ’96 was especially sweet for the Big Blue Nation because five years prior, just two years after Pitino had been hired to resurrect the program, Kentucky, featuring a core unit that later would become known as the Unforgettables, had posted the best record in the Southeastern Conference, but was ineligible to claim the title or play in the post season.
After the season was over, Pitino presented the players with rings, emblazoned with their SEC record of 14-4. And the Wildcats got to ride a fire engine in a parade through the streets of Lexington. Fun, but not quite as satisfying as the Big Dance in March.
1985-86 — It was Eddie Sutton’s first season at the helm for Kentucky, the former Arkansas mentor taking over for Joe B. Hall, who had coached the Cats to a surprising round of 16 finish the year prior. Under Hall, the Wildcats had maximized their offense by pouring the ball inside to All-American Kenny Walker.
Sutton’s team did the same, only better. Seasoned by their success the year before, the Cats raced to an incredible record of 32-4, 17-1 in the SEC and a number three national ranking. A Final Four run seemed inevitable.
But then an SEC rival caught up with the Wildcats. LSU, which Kentucky had beaten twice during the regular season and again in the conference tournament, drew into the Southeast Regional in Atlanta – same as top-seeded UK. And in the regional championship game, LSU, facing the Cats for the fourth time that season, pulled the upset and it was the Tigers who kept dancing, at the Final Four in Dallas.
The regular season, the SEC tournament, March Madness – each year is unique and yet, every now and then, history pokes us in the back of the head to remind us – we’ve seen some of this before.