January 21st 2013
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Each team and each season is different. Four days after John Calipari said he finally came to terms with the fact that his team was not going to “whomp” about opponents by 20 points, the Cats went out and blitzed Auburn by 20-plus--and did it in front of a rowdy road crowd. Did this performance represent an epiphany, a breakthrough, a turning point or whatever other term you want to use? We’ll start to get the answer tomorrow night at Alabama.
Usually, turnarounds happen gradually and are best recognized in looking back over a period over several games. That’s the way it was in 2011, when the Wildcats’ reversal of form was more gradual, culminating with an upset of top-seeded Ohio State in the NCAA’s Sweet 16, en route to the Final Four. But I remember the 2003 season when the turnaround was instantaneous. Kentucky had lost to a mediocore Virginia team by 14, been beaten at home by Michigan State and lost by 18 at Louisville. And then on January 14 at Vanderbilt, the Cats went to halftime trailing by eight. Then, something happened. In the second half, UK came with a suffocating defense that would become that team’s calling card. Vandy made only four baskets in the second half and the Cats came up with 12 steals and won the game by 22.
That didn’t mark the start of UK’s 26-game winning streak but it was the defining moment of that run. Kentucky won the next nine games by double-digit margins, including a rout of number one ranked Florida. In the current Wildcats’ blowout win at Auburn, we saw arguably the best performance of the season by John Calipari’s club. The defense, the rebounding, the passing, the toughness, the spirit--all areas that had been spotty at best for this group--were superb. Only with the passage of time will we be able to say this was this team’s “defining moment.” If they lose at an improved Alabama team tomorrow night, then maybe the Auburn game only turns out to be one great night.
The team in 2003 was a veteran group while this one is freshman-laden so I’m not expecting the 2013 Cats to launch the kind of run that squad did eight years ago. But I do think this was a breakthrough--now, let’s see if I’m right.
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