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By RICHARD CHEEKS
The 2011-12 Kentucky basketball season ended just as this fearless forecaster suggested it would, with Kentucky’s eighth national championship, with only two losses (not the forecast three) scattered along the path to glory. Coach Calipari’s first three teams fell one win short of a final four in 2010, one win shy of the Championship game in 2012, and carried the big prize back to Lexington in 2012. Coach Calipari is spreading the word, wide and far, of the shared sacrifice that the 2011-12 Wildcats displayed on their way to the immortal recognition of the Big Blue Nation.
How does Coach Calipari follow his last act? Some say with a sheepish grin, “With another Championship” of course. Others look at the college basketball landscape as the 2012-13 season approaches and wonder why couldn’t this group of Cats do just that, but then retreat from the dreams into what feels more realistic, focusing on the 2013-14 season that is already shaping up as one for the ages. So, with that view, 2012-13 is a time for big blue assurance that number 9 may not be delivered in 2013, but 2014 will be another one for the ages.
I am not ready to concede this season to anyone. Not Indiana! Not Louisville! Not Duke! Not Florida! Not ANYONE!!!!
A year ago, I wrote of the great anticipation that met the onset of the 2011-12 season, and quite candidly, I do not feel that same level of confident anticipation today as a year ago. That anticipation was that the team would be the last one standing in April, and it was. However, this year, I am confident that this group will be playing basketball deep into the NCAA tournament, and a third consecutive trip to the final four is well within reach for this group IF Nerlens Noel is able to play.
As always, my blue tinted view ahead for the 2012-13 basketball season is standard operating procedure for this fan. I make no apologies for my unabashed optimism for Coach John Calipari’s fourth team. I have listened to Coach’s words during this off season, and I believe it is fair to conclude that Coach Calipari is perhaps more optimistic about this team than me, if that is possible.
Two Octobers ago, I projected a 31-7 record, with the season ending with an Elite 8 loss. As Calipari’s second season turned out, the final record was 29-9 with the season ending with a disappointing Final Four loss. Coach Calipari has been clear that in his opinion, that team was playing better basketball at the end than anyone else on the scene. Last October, I projected a 37-3 record, and a National Championship. Many who read that projection said that the team may be able to win it all, but three losses were too few. The team did win it all, and only sustained two losses (38-2) along the way.
In 2012-13, Coach Calipari will again demonstrate that he is among the best in the game at molding his teams into national contenders and final four participants. Someday soon, his detractors will have to recognize his coaching prowess.
Some of Coach’s critics even look for reasons for his recruiting success. All that this Coach has done since arriving in Lexington is produce the #1 recruiting classes in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Some say that the shine is off because many view the 2012 recruiting class as only the second best in the land because of UCLA’s signing of the top high school player of this class, Shabazz Mohammed.
Just as it has after each of Coach Calipari’s years, UK again suffered deep roster loses from last year’s team. Gone are seniors Darius Miller and Eloy Vargas. However, the Big Blue Nation also bid farewell and best wishes to Sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, and Freshmen Anthony Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, and Marquis Teague. The loss after the 2012 championship represents 7 of the 11 scholarship players, and of the returning four, only Kyle Wiltjer logged significant minutes, as Twany Beckham only played an occasional mop up role, and Ryan Harrow and Jon Hood did not play at all due to transfer rules and injury respectively. So, this team starts from a “nucleus” of only one experienced player. However, my confidence is not shaken by that ominous dearth of experience.
Coach Calipari has again transformed the roster over the course of the last 7 months since the championship and mass exodus to the NBA. This transformation has again placed the Wildcats near the head of the class with respect to discussions about another national championship, with pre-season polls ranking the Cats in the top 3, generally behind Indiana and Louisville as the consensus top two. The predictions and projections that follow in this initial writing about the 2012-13 season reflect the continuing excitement that still swirls through the Big Blue Nation. Many critics will undoubtedly comment that these predictions are overly exuberant, and I plead guilty to this exuberance!!! If this team fails to “measure up” to these expectations, the world will not end, and I will acknowledge that errors of my way, but until then, this is my story, and I am sticking to it.
The University of Kentucky Basketball Schedule for the 2012-13 season includes 13 non-conference and 18 SEC games for the regular season. The non-conference schedule loses two games to make room for the two additional SEC conference games now that Missouri and Texas A&M have joined the party. The Cats open against a pair of ACC opponent on neutral courts against Maryland and Duke. The non-conference schedule includes a trip to Louisville and Notre Dame, and a home date with Baylor. The remaining 8 non-conference schedule includes Lafayette, Morehead, Long Island, Samford, Portland, Lipscomb, Marshall, and Eastern Michigan, all at Rupp. One casualty of the 2012-13 non-conference schedule has been the annual Freedom Hall game.
The SEC schedule begins on the road at Vanderbilt. The Cats will play home and home against Vanderbilt, Florida, Tennessee, Auburn, and Texas A&M. The Cats only play the other 8 SEC opponents once with LSU, South Carolina, Missouri, and Mississippi State at Rupp, and Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Georgia on the road. at home against South Carolina, followed by back to back road games at Auburn and Tennessee.
This team will get perhaps its most difficult test of the non-conference season when it opens away from Rupp against Maryland and Duke. Of course, the road trips to Notre Dame and Louisville will each pose obstacles to victory. In the SEC, the road trips to Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida, all within the first 2/3 of the conference season, will be the most likely games to hand the Cats conference losses. If the Cats hold serve at Rupp and win the “winnable” SEC road games, the Cats should approach the back to back road games at Tennessee and Florida with a record of 9-1 in the conference.
Last year’s championship team is the only Calipari UK team that has lost a game in the SEC Post Season Tournament. Calipari will lead these Cats into this Tournament with a cumulative SEC Tournament record of 8-1, and there is no reason to believe that this team will do anything but add to that fine post-season record. In the NCAA Tournament, the Cats should secure a #1 seed, and advance to the Final Four, where anything will be possible for the four survivors. I like the Cats’ chances to put the UK program on full display on Championship Monday for the second consecutive year against either Louisville or Indiana.
PREDICTED 2011-12 RECORD:
SEC Tournament: 3-0 [SEC Tournament Champions]
NCAA Tournament: 5-1
Final Record: 35-5