Kentucky Wildcats Having Hard Time In Reigning Champ Role, May Miss NCAA Tourney

This was never going to be an encore performance met with raucous applause and rave reviews. With the headliners racing out the door even as the curtain closed, the most anyone could hope to witness was a reasonable facsimile put forth by a group of unproven understudies and fresh-faced newcomers.

Thus far, the effort has been shaky at best.

Welcome to the University of Kentucky men’s basketball 2012-13, the season after the Wildcats earned their eighth national championship.

Despite their youth, they entered the current campaign ranked third in the country – a byproduct of the program’s history, both recent and long-term, and the acknowledged talent that had joined coach John Calipari’s fold. Parade All-Americans Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Nerlens Noel not only gave the UK faithful hope that the good times would continue to roll, but, apparently, they had the experts convinced of the same thing.

Returning big man Kyle Wiltjer, the main link to last year’s 38-2 example of dominance, and North Carolina State transfer Ryan Harrow only strengthened those positions.

But, thing is, no matter well they played, individually or collectively, no matter how quickly they jelled, it was mental and emotional fool’s gold to think and feel the transition from life with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to one without them would be super smooth, and go off with nary a hitch.

With those two departing before the third pick of the 2012 NBA Draft was announced back in June, the Wildcats were looking at having to replace their entire core. But the roster ravaging didn’t end there as four other UK players joined Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist as being deemed prime-time worthy, with Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague also going in the first round before Doron Lamb and Darius Miller were chosen in the second.

The new ’Cats on the block have hardly been stiffs. Freshmen Goodwin and Noel, each of whom earned national player of the year honors as high school seniors, have posted good numbers. Goodwin, a 6-4 guard, averages 14.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists. Noel, a 6-10 forward, averages 10.6 points and 9.4 rebounds while shooting 58.6 percent from the floor.

Poythress might even be better than his slightly more acclaimed classmates. He averages 13.1 points, 6.6 boards and is draining field goals at a 62.4-percent clip.

Wiltjer and Harrow have been productive as well, posting double-digit points per game as well.

But the potential others have placed on them is not being realized. By week five, UK had dropped completely out of the polls – mainly due to back-to-back losses at Notre Dame and at Rupp Arena against Baylor. Really, it wasn’t so much that the Wildcats fell, it’s that they seemed to have little, or no ability, to soften the blow.

They pushed Louisville a month ago, but looked bad against mediocre Texas A&M earlier this month. All told, they checked into Tuesday night’s contest at Southeastern Conference front-runner Mississippi with a 13-6 mark overall, 4-2 in the SEC.

The concept that they may miss the NCAA Tournament a year after winning it is not a foreign one. It’s a very real possibility. But they still have opportunities to redeem themselves, with 11 more regular-season games, including three against ranked opponents (Florida twice, and Missouri) following Ole Miss and a rematch at A&M, and then the SEC Tournament.

They, obviously, possess talent and the guy on the bench can hold his own with anyone.

Now in his fourth season, Coach Cal can boast an impressive progression during his reign in Bluegrass Country, leading UK to the Elite Eight in Year 1, the Final Four in Year 2, and a national title in Year 3.

Though a repeat seems remote, and even a chance to defend their title a stretch, it would be wise to hold off on counting out the Wildcats just yet. That team in 2010-11 lost eight of its first 27 games and only went 10-6 in the SEC. It then won the conference tournament and went on to reach the national semifinal before it lost to eventual champ Connecticut … by one point.

In short, they’re not dead yet. They’re definitely not on a level with last year’s Davis-driven juggernaut, but, really, why would anyone have thought they would be?

They’re young, they have skill and, at this point, they still have time on their side.

It’d be OK to keep the hook nearby. It’s just not necessary to yank them off-stage at this point.