Let’s talk about losing. Shall we?
After all, we’ve become such experts, you and I. We’ve learned how the other half lives. You know who I’m talking about. In every game, there’s a winner and a loser (if you’re not playing soccer). And throughout this basketball season, we’ve experienced the slog of being on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
Big Blue fans have had precious few reasons to cheer, to pump up their respective chests and revel in the glory that comes from backing the winningest program in men’s college hoops.
Those of us media types for the most part have rarely had to ask UK basketball coaches and players how THIS one got away. Sure, we have experience. Anyone who has covered Kentucky football knows that drill. But expectations on the south side of campus have always been shy of what’s expected on the north side.
So now we can kick dirt on this past season and look ahead, which is exactly where the story lies. Wildcat basketball has known losing in the modern era, dating back to the ‘60s. But if you go back and study past worksheets, you’ll notice that disappointing seasons gave way to glory.
Roll yourself back to the 1966-67 season. The Cats were still flush from their run as “Rupp’s Runts” to the ’66 NCAA championship game, which is why they were ranked #3 in the pre-season polls. Kentucky still had Pat Riley and Louie Dampier, but Larry Conley and Tommy Kron, key elements to the backbone of the ’66 team, where gone.
Kentucky blew out Virginia to open the season but two nights later lost to Illinois in overtime, 98-97. They bounced back with a win over Northwestern but then fell to sixth-ranked North Carolina at home.
After another home loss, this one to Florida four nights later, the Wildcats dropped out of the Top 20 completely and never returned. In fact, they finished 13-13 (8-10 in the SEC). It was Adolph Rupp’s worst season.
There was no social media back then but think about what the grumbling must have been like at church the next morning or in watering holes the night before. So what happened next?
They bounced back. Unranked Kentucky opened the ‘67-68 season by winning nine of its first 10 (the only loss coming in Greensboro to #7 North Carolina.) Within 10 days, the Cats had crashed the poll at #4 and eventually settled into #5 for most of the season.
There was one rough patch, where they lost three of four in January, but a 10-game winning streak to close out the season yielded another SEC title for Kentucky and Rupp was named conference coach of the year. The only sad note that year was a heart-breaking, 82-81 loss to Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Memorial Coliseum, cutting short a trip to the Final Four.
Skip ahead to the 1973-74 season, Joe B. Hall’s second at the helm. Kentucky had won the SEC title the year prior, but 7-footer Jim Andrews had graduated. All Andrews did was average a double-double in his junior and senior seasons.
Hall was caught without a capable big man to replace him so he was forced to play power forward Bob Guyette at center and 6-foot-4 Jimmy Dan Conner at forward, opposite 6-foot-5 Kevin Grevey. The point guard was Maysville sharpshooter Ronnie Lyons, but he stood only 5-10. Bigger, physical teams pounded the Cats, who finished 13-13.
Haters howled. Clearly, Hall was the wrong choice to replace Rupp. What they didn’t know was that Hall already had been hard at work on the recruiting trail. Fans were confident he would sign Lexington prep stars Jack Givens and James Lee. What they didn’t know was that he was bringing in what seemed like a forest of big men: Rick Robey, Mike Phillips and Danny Hall – all three of them standing 6-foot-11.
That infusion of size and talent enabled hall to play Guyette back at power forward. Conner returned to the backcourt and the Wildcats took another SEC title (15-3), losing to UCLA in the NCAA title game.
Other UK teams struggled; Kentucky missed the NCAAs in 1979, finishing 19-12. Hall’s last team was 16-12 in 1985 but landed a tournament bid and upset Washington, led by Detlef Schrempf, and Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels.
The various losing skids this year forced fans and journalists alike to look back on the most recent season that saw Kentucky finish with more losses than wins. During the 1988-89 season, Eddie Sutton’s Wildcats were burdened not only with high expectations but an ongoing NCAA investigation.
Practices were open; media outlets were free to attend. We locals already had covered the Emery Air Freight/cash-to-players scandal and moved on. But practically every day, a national outlet or two were there, asking the same questions. So were friends, family members and classmates. Over and over and over.
Minus super-sophomore Rex Chapman and a big senior class that had moved on the year before, the Wildcats struggled with non-conference opponents, suffering a season-opening 80-55 blowout loss to Duke and even losing in the first round of the UK Invitational Tournament to Bowling Green.
But after a 97-75 pounding at Louisville, the Wildcats began their 18-game conference schedule and at the midway point, they were tied with Vanderbilt for first place with a 6-3 SEC record.
Then they collapsed.
They gave way under the weight of the NCAA investigation and all the attending questions, dropping their next six conference games and nine of their final 11, finishing 13-19. Nine days after the season finale, Eddie Sutton resigned.
After the NCAA sanctions came down, the program lay in ashes. Sports Illustrated had punctuated the misery with a cover story entitled, “Kentucky’s Shame.”
Enter Rick Pitino. He promised success and he delivered. And to the amazement of most, he did it immediately. His first season ended with a modest 14-14 worksheet but “Pitino’s Bombinos” won those games in such thrilling fashion (including an upset of Shaquille O’Neal and LSU), UK fans were actually still smiling when Selection Sunday rolled around, minus the Wildcats from Lexington. They knew better times lay ahead.
John Calipari’s 2013 UK team was a stinker but the following season, with a tweaked roster that included a beast of a freshman named Julius Randle, the Cats played for a national championship.
For the second time, the UK coach needs to get under the hood and not just tinker with the program’s engine. He needs a makeover – not only in personnel but playing style as well. And there’s a lot going on.
“The ground below us is kind of moving around a little bit,” Calipari said on his final UK Network radio show. “The way college basketball is now is going to change drastically in the next three of four years.”
He was referring to a free transfer season available to all players and a transfer portal that, nation-wide, seems to have a door spinning so fast it’s a blur. And the issue of players profiting from their image-and-likeness could have an effect on player movement. Can I make more at another school than I can where I am right now? Will I even be allowed at my school?
“We have to stay ahead of the curve,” Calipari said. “We have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
It HAS happened before. But each time, Kentucky has followed up with a season to be proud of. A decade into his stay as the CEO of college basketball’s bluest of blue-bloods, Hall of Fame Coach John Calipari is looking at his stiffest challenge yet.