No one has mastered the art of turning college winners into NBA lottery picks better than Calipari, and there has been little reason to question the method to his March Madness. Aside from a mess of a 2012-13 season, his Kentucky track record reads like a college coach's wish list -- Elite Eight to Final Four to national champion, and then an NIT hiccup to, arguably, the top class in history.
Now, here we are. On the heels of an NIT first-round loss to Robert Morris, the same Wildcats who were once billed as a team with designs on 40-0 are at a critical crossroads before the calendar flips to 2014.
The drumbeats of anxiety, if not dissatisfaction, are simmering underneath the surface.
And instead of a college basketball team, what we have here is something of a sociological experiment. We look at the Wildcats' body language more than the form on their shots, critique their ability to huddle more than their ability to box out. We look for the roll of an eye instead of a good pick-and-roll.
It's legitimate criticism, one that even Calipari has made. Certainly this team doesn't lack talent and ability, so something has to be out of sync.
But it's criticism that has its roots in UK 2012, the standard by which all freshmen teams will be compared, the ones wearing Kentucky uniforms most of all. That team looked like a team and played like a team from opening tip to "One Shining Moment." It was one wild buzzer-beater away from a perfect regular season, and later there was a loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final … otherwise, perfection.
Except as the seasons pass and the mixed results pour in, that team is being revealed for what it truly was: a basketball anomaly. The road to success, it turns out, is not so smooth or so simple.
At least not when the drivers are freshmen.