Kentucky feels ups, downs of youth

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Before Kentucky could snip the last piece of twine from the Superdome nets, the broader meaning behind the Wildcats' national championship had been determined.

This was college basketball's destiny. It would then and forever be a diaper dandy-fest, a game won by baby-faced freshmen and the coach who could collect and best lead the most of them. But one NIT and one stumbling start later, we realize the truth: just how extraordinary that 2012 Kentucky title team was.

Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were the top two picks in the draft that year; neither averaged 15 points per game for the Wildcats. Kidd-Gilchrist was the fourth-leading scorer on that team. They were not the mold; they were the mold-breakers. Nor, as it turns out, were they trendsetters, evidenced a year later when a veteran-laden Louisville team won the title, and never more clearly than in this, the year of the freshmen.

This early college basketball season has been both highly entertaining and wildly unpredictable.

Why? Because first-year players are in control of it. It's like asking a toddler to run the stock market, a first-grader to balance your checkbook.

It could be fun or, more likely, it could be a debacle. On Saturday, when Kentucky hosts Louisville, the Wildcats' freshmen continue John Calipari's Great Experiment in a slightly downgraded Game of the Year.

"The challenge -- let me tell you, the one thing with them, they play extremely hard, way harder than we've played, like, way harder," Calipari said recently. "And again, they're a Final Four, national championship team this year -- those guys are back. They know how hard to play; they're not rattled late, all the things that this team is still learning about."

The Wildcats have been the most confounding of freshmen-reliant teams -- not surprising thanks to their no-shaver-required median age. They have played three name-brand, RPI top-50 teams (Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina) and lost to all three.

They have looked like world-beaters sometimes and disinterested, shoulder-slumping kids at others. Come March, they could be bounced early.

Come April, they could easily win it all.

Come Saturday, who knows?

This much is certain -- the Wildcats need this win.

They need it for statistical reasons.

Kentucky heads to the turn of this season devoid of a true quality win and with little opportunity to get such wins when league play starts. The SEC is 6-22 against the RPI's top 50 and 20-34 against the top 100. Outside of two games against Florida and LSU and one at Missouri, there is little for the Wildcats to build a resume on for March seeding.

And the Wildcats need it for an obvious reason. It's against Louisville.

The Cardinals are the defending national champions, an impossibly difficult dose of medicine for ardent Cats supporters to swallow.

Plus, Louisville is currently ranked higher than UK (No. 6 to No. 18), has a better record (11-1 to 9-3) and, despite a bad loss to North Carolina and a tepid schedule, has looked better and more in order than Kentucky.

So a Cardinals victory here would be close to untenable for Kentucky.

But most of all, the Wildcats need to win for reasons that can't be easily quantified.

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.

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