Monday, January 25, 2010

Will History Hurt Kentucky?

Kentucky's rise to the Number 1 spot in both college basketball polls this week signals a major triumph for a program that was so bad last season it missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 18 years and cost coach Billy Gillispie his job.

What John Calipari has done in resurrecting Kentucky is virtually unprecedented and shows the power of recruiting. Why? The players flourishing at Kentucky could just as easily have been overwhelming Conference USA opponents as members of Calipari's old Memphis team this season.

Four of Kentucky's top seven scorers are freshmen thanks to Calipari, including All-America candidate John Wall (17.0 ppg., 6.9 apg.), forward DeMarcus Cousins (15.4 ppg., 9.5 rpg.), and guard Eric Bledsoe (11.3 ppg.).

Junior forward Patrick Patterson (15.9 ppg., 7.8 rpg.), a possible NBA early-entry candidate last year, is icing on the cake.

The Wildcats still face an historical uphill battle this season.

Syracuse in 2003 and Louisville in 1986 are the only teams since 1985 to win the national championship the year after missing the NCAA Tournament the previous year.

For Syracuse, freshmen Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara led the way, as well as Philly native sophomore Hakim Warrick.

Before that, the 1986 Cardinals were led by--you guessed it--freshman Pervis Ellison, the tourney's Most Outstanding Player. The 1985 season was the first year 64 teams were invited to the tournament.

Historical precedent offers Kentucky a good news/bad new scenario. Since '85, just four teams have even reached the national championship game after missing the tourney the preceding year: Georgia Tech in 2004, Syracuse in 2003, Michigan in 1992, and Louisville in 1986.

The good news: Every team except Georgia Tech was led by freshmen in prominent roles. Syracuse had Anthony and McNamara, Michigan had the Fab Five, and Louisville featured Ellison.

The Wildcats aren't the only team hoping to repeat the success of Syracuse and Louisville. Other current top 25 teams that missed last year's NCAA Tournament include Kansas State, Georgetown, Georgia Tech, Mississippi, and Baylor.

Are Kentucky's freshmen up to the challenge?

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