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When Freshmen Become Stale

Loading a roster with freshmen — otherwise known as the one-year model of program building — gave John Calipari his first national championship.

The very same approach gave Calipari a humiliating NIT appearance and an even more embarrassing loss to Robert Morris.

Entering this season and the latest installment of Calipari's "one-year plan," it was foolish to think that Kentucky would go 40-0 or even 38-2 without seeing the Wildcats prove their worth in the month of November. Yet, it also seemed unwise to assume that Big Blue would tumble all the way down to the NIT.

No, this had not been a smooth ride for Kentucky before the past three days, but in the same breath, the Wildcats were close to the 6-seed line, a perfectly reasonable place to be for a young team with plenty of limitations in the backcourt. This was no 2012 juggernaut with special one-and-done players, but it wasn't the dumpster fire of 2013, either. On a scale of 1 to 10 — 1 being "NIT" and 10 being "colossus" — Kentucky rated a 6, just a bit closer to being really good than being conspicuously flawed.

However, to emphasize the point, that was three days ago.

The present moment is different.

Losing at home in overtime to a determined Arkansas team was one thing.

Losing to South Carolina — 11-18 South Carolina; "4-12 in this awful SEC" South Carolina; "haven't-finished-higher-than-tenth-in-the-SEC-standings-since-2010" South Carolina — is quite another matter.

It's hard to make just 14 baskets in a game. It's harder to do so on 52 shots. It's harder still to go 14-of-52 when you have a contender for SEC Player of the Year (Julius Randle) who should be able to create good opportunities for his teammates all over the court.

Yet, Kentucky pulled off the improbable. Only a late flurry of threes — in total desperation mode — made Kentucky's shooting percentage better than it had been for most of the evening. Randle went 1-of-7 from the floor, and among shooters who attempted at least four field goals on Saturday, the "best" performer for Kentucky was James Young… who went 4-of-12.

Kentucky was that bad on offense.

As for the defensive end of the floor, the Wildcats allowed crucial offensive rebounds to South Carolina's admirably persistent frontcourt in the final few minutes of regulation. Gamecock forward Laimonas Chatkevicius delivered a putback layup and a post-up basket at crunch time to give the home team a cushion that came in handy in the final 30 seconds.

Down 68-61 with 29 seconds left, Kentucky scored six points in seven seconds on a three, a steal, a layup (by Randle, his only field goal of the game), and a free throw after a foul by the Gamecocks. South Carolina, which has had trouble finishing games all season, clung to a tenuous 68-67 edge with 22 seconds to go. Staring into the gun barrel of pressure, South Carolina could have wobbled, but Sindarius Thornwell and Brenton Williams were able to pour in foul shots in the closing 20 seconds, fending off Kentucky's comeback attempt in the absence of Calipari, who had been ejected midway through the second half. 

The loss of a game to a bad team will linger for Kentucky, as will the Wildcats' loss of composure, which is something that became disturbingly commonplace last year. Moreover, this kind of stumble means that Kentucky should move at least two seed lines in the wrong direction. This wasn't expected a week ago, but now, it's a very real possibility: Kentucky could play in the 8-9 game, meaning that this team — given such unmerited praise before the season began — is now a decided underdog in terms of making the Sweet 16. It would be a genuine shock if Kentucky regroups to reach the second weekend of the Big Dance.

It's not the NIT, but it's close… too close for any Kentucky fan's comfort.

John Calipari might find another Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the coming years, but even he has to wonder: Just how sustainable is the "one-year" model? When 2013 went south, Calipari could still wave the 2012 championship banner in the faces of his critics. Even a few weeks ago — especially after a solid road win at Missouri in which his team showed poise under pressure — Kentucky's newest crop of freshmen seemed to be doing all right. 

An 8-9 game, though? That's not enough of an improvement from an NIT season. 

Some tough questions are being asked throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky; Big Blue's season seems to exist beyond the realm of hope at the moment. There is genuine drama to be found in the remainder of this campaign, as Calipari tries to get his players' minds in order. Yet, the biggest source of intrigue surrounding Kentucky basketball would seem to exist in relationship to the 2014-2015 season. Just how will Calipari answer all the tough questions he's facing today? The way he responds will have a lot to do with the way Kentucky's program evolves.

Big Blue Nation can only hope that Cal's next moves hit the target. The 2012 season was supposed to usher in a new Pax Kentuckiana. Instead, it's becoming more aberrational with each passing day.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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