By Matt Norlander
Can we agree to a collective pact? Never again let us put so much unreasonable stock into recruiting classes in the preseason. By nature of each respective sport, they're different in football as opposed to basketball, but college hoops would be wise to follow football's forecast model and exercise caution for the sake of pragmatism.
Sure we can have suppositions; that's natural and never going away for as long as they play the games, you read about them and we write about a ball falling through a hoop. But going forward in college basketball, let's keep expectations on incubated teams relatively restrained. Instead of rushing to be right on a posse of 17- and 18-year-olds and declaring that they'll immediately walk into arenas from atop the hill, how about we aim low and hope high? Let's allow room for surprise, because without it, disappointment and oft-unwarranted blame follows.
And so that's where we've landed at the moment with this iteration of the Kentucky Wildcats, a group unlike last year's team but now one that will inevitably be compared to the club of freshmen that became the first team John Calipari couldn't coach to the NCAA tournament.
This 2013 crop of high school seniors was supposedly the greatest of all-time, in terms of recruiting classes. Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison and Dakari Johnson and James Young. Five guys who could pull Kentucky out of the darkness that was last season, when the Wildcats -- and this still kind of baffles me, which speaks to the problem -- failed to reach the field of 68, then dropped their first game against Robert Morris in the NIT. The aforementioned five will all be drafted to the NBA, most of them in 2014, more than likely.
But prospective individual talent doesn't always correlate with successful teams. It's the great uncertainty, specifically in basketball, that allows for the biggest of upsets. It's part of why we love the game so much: Having the most talent is never a guarantee of victory. Yet here I was, along with most others in college basketball's media, thinking Kentucky would clearly be, if not the best, then certainly a top-five team to start the season. Sitting here on a Saturday night, on the heels of an 82-77 loss at North Carolina that dropped the Wildcats to 8-3, it's time to admit that we were wrong about Kentucky for the second straight year. There was a point in October when people were legitimately discussing if this team could go 40-0. How ridiculous does that seem now?
Truth is, this hasn't been one of the 25 best programs on the court -- easily -- in the country since Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague left after their freshman year, giving John Calipari his first national title.
Don't believe me? Check it out. Since winning the national championship on April 2, 2012, Calipari has coached his team to a 10-11 record against teams ranked in KenPom.com's top 100. Expand that to teams in KenPom's top 105 and you get two more losses. Against NCAA tournament teams last season, Kentucky went 4-4. This year, the only teams on UK's schedule to date that we can reasonably prognosticate into the 2014 NCAA tournament field (UNC, Baylor, Michigan State) beat the Cats.
That sound like a top-10 team? Top-20? Not at all.
Yet it still feels like Kentucky's elite, that it's naturally deserving to be in the conversation as one of the best. It is: as a program. It's arguably the best program. But it's not the best team, not even close, and we're now seeing proof that I and plenty of other media brethren overreacted to Cal's latest and greatest recruiting coup. It's not the end of the world, but think how differently we'd be viewing Kentucky if we had merely put the same expectation level on this team that we did of another team that's struggling this season after losing talent to the NBA draft. Who could that be?
The Wolverines lost two huge players of impact (Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr.), and are now a four-loss team, after dropping one at home to No. 1 Arizona on Saturday. Are the pitchforks out for John Beilein? Are we wondering "where it all went wrong" with this group? No, because it's seen as what it is: a rebuilding team with talent that has a chance at an NCAA tournament run, should the pieces conjoin come March. But because it's Kentucky and because it's Calipari we don't seem able to dial down our projections.
I don't think this year's Wildcat team is aligned to the fate of last year's star-crossed club. Surely Kentucky can grow to be a great group, and by year's end they could prove plenty of people right on all that "potential," but college basketball fans and media have become too in love with freshman ability coming into a season. We were wrong to put them so near the top at the start. Their play thus far has proven it, and at the same time, it's not their fault.
The common thread between this year and last is Calipari, and for all the riches he has inherited with this job, this is the brutal downside to getting this much talent. Wins are never guaranteed, and three losses five weeks into the season is reason for columns like this and craziness in the Commonwealth. Maybe next year we'll learn our lesson.
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Matt Norlander is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a writer at CBSSports.com. He lives in Connecticut and is equal parts obsessed with sports and music. Follow him on Twitter: @MattNorlander.