By Tim Letcher
SEC Digital Network
Kentucky advanced to its second consecutive Final Four on Sunday with an 82-70 win over Baylor in Atlanta. The Wildcats will make their 15th overall appearance in the event, and Kentucky fans are once again coming to expect their team to make it to the Final Four nearly every season.
However, it wasn’t that long ago that the Final Four didn't even cross the minds of the Wildcats or their rabid fanbase. In fact, just four years ago, Kentucky was relegated to playing in the (gulp) NIT.
The year was 2009, and Darius Miller, now a senior, was a freshman on a team that included current NBA players Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson. The Wildcats suffered through a 22-14 season and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since their last year of probation in 1991.
That team suffered a home loss to VMI and ended the regular season on a four-game losing streak. A program that prides itself on its winning tradition was at its lowest point in nearly 20 years.
After winning its first two NIT games, the ‘Cats fell in the quarterfinals at Notre Dame, 77-67. Shortly after that game, Billy Gillespie was fired as head coach and the search for his replacement was on.
On April 1, 2009, John Calipari was introduced as the new mentor at Kentucky, and at that moment, everything changed.
Calipari began practicing the remaining players to evaluate the talent level that was on the roster. Players that Calipari thought would fit in his system would be invited to stay. Those that didn’t fit would be offered a chance to transfer.
The new UK head man then went on a recruiting binge and brought in the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class, which included John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton. And from there, it seemed that UK was back.
Kentucky started the 2009-10 season with 21 straight wins, and was ranked number one in the country before losing on the road at South Carolina. Kentucky would win another eight straight before losing at Tennessee on February 27.
Kentucky then won its final two regular season games, three straight to win the SEC Tournament and three more in the NCAA Tournament to make it back to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2005. But in the Elite Eight, the talented group of Wildcats ran into an experienced West Virginia team with a tough 1-3-1 zone, and Kentucky’s inability to hit from long-range (four-of-32) doomed the Wildcats to a 73-66 loss.
After the season, Wall, Cousins, Bledsoe, Orton and Patterson all left for the NBA. All five of those players were selected in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft.
For most programs, and most coaches, that would signal rebuilding the program. But Calipari never considered that option. He hit the recruiting trail once again, and brought in another talented class, including Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. Along with returnees Miller, DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson, the Wildcats roster was set for the 2010-11 season.
The youth of Calipari’s second team showed at times, especially on the road, and after a 77-76 loss at Arkansas on February 23, the ‘Cats found themselves at 19-8 on the season. Then, something clicked. The offense became better. The defense was stifling. And Kentucky won its last three regular season games, as well as all three games in the SEC Tournament to claim a second straight championship.
Kentucky went into the NCAA Tournament as the fourth seed in the East Regional. The Wildcats needed a last-second shot by Knight to beat Princeton in the first round. Then, Kentucky got revenge against West Virginia, downing Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers 71-63.
Kentucky next faced top-seeded Ohio State, and once again, Knight was the hero, hitting a shot to send the Wildcats past the top-seeded Buckeyes, 62-60.
Kentucky found itself in the Elite Eight for the second straight season, and this time, the ‘Cats took the next step. Kentucky got past North Carolina 76-69 to return to the Final Four for the first time since 1998, when Kentucky won its last national championship.
In Houston, Kentucky ran into a Connecticut team that was on a mission, and despite strong games from Knight and Lamb, Kentucky fell to the eventual champions, 56-55.
During the summer of 2011, something different happened for Calipari. A pair of his top players decided to return for their sophomore seasons. Jones and Lamb both decided to return for their sophomore seasons. Knight and Liggins left early for the NBA, and Harrellson graduated, but it wasn’t the mass exodus as it had been the previous year.
So when Calipari did his thing in recruiting once again, he suddenly had a foundation to build from, with Jones, Lamb and Miller all returning with significant experience. Calipari was able to add the nation’s top recruit, Anthony Davis, as well as highly-regarded prospects Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. For good measure, Calipari also signed another McDonald’s All-American, Kyle Wiltjer.
The new additions plus the talented newcomers produced, without much doubt, Calipari’s best team at Kentucky. After Saturday’s win over Baylor, Kentucky is now 36-2 on the season, and is regarded as the favorite headed into next week’s Final Four.
The Wildcats will meet arch rival Louisville on Saturday. The Cardinals happen to be coached by another man who once raised the expectations of Kentucky fans, Rick Pitino.
Kentucky fans think their team should compete for Final Fours and national titles every season. And it seems that as long as Calipari can continue doing the job he has done so far, that dream is becoming a reality. But Kentucky fans need to appreciate the job that Calipari has done in Lexington, because not all that long ago, things were much different.