It was one year ago when Duke University’s men’s basketball team couldn’t play a lick of defense.
It was two years ago that the University of Kentucky wobbled on many of its road trips in the conspicuously weak Southeastern Conference.
In January of 2016, Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari, both Hall of Famers, will once again try to create the magic which marked unlikely runs to the national championship game, and in Coach K’s case, another crown.
Is it all just a little bit of history repeating?
Right now, it seems hard to imagine Duke and Kentucky climbing out of a deep ditch, but memories can be short. Coach K and Coach Cal have shown that they can turn potential car accidents into full-distance journeys on The Road To The Final Four.
That they both get a chance to re-create their most impressive March metamorphoses is just one of the many fascinating subplots of an enthralling college basketball season.
First, let’s take a brief trip into the past in Durham and Lexington…
A year ago, Duke had given up 87 and 90 points in losses to North Carolina State and Miami. The Devils surrendered 90 to Miami at home in Cameron Indoor Stadium. When they limped to Louisville to play the highly-ranked Cardinals, most observers (including this one) expected a bloodbath.
They got one… only it was Duke providing the pain instead of receiving it.
The Blue Devils did benefit to a certain extent from Louisville’s lack of shooting touch, but they still held the Cardinals in check by limiting second-chance points in a 63-52 win. The victory was a product of Coach K’s renewed effort to get his team to buy in at the defensive end of the floor (consider what Justise Winslow became, and has continued to become, as a basketball player over time).
Duke lost to only one team for the remainder of the season: Notre Dame.
Now, the Blue Devils arrive at that very familiar crossroads in 2016. None other than the Fighting Irish just dumped 95 points on a very young Duke roster this past Saturday in Cameron. Surely, these defensive issues aren’t going to go away, right? Well, Coach K turned Duke into a defensive machine last March. (The draw was perfect, but still — defensive effort is defensive effort. Let’s not minimize that.)
The greatest coach of our generation, this era’s John Wooden, gets another chance to put the “D” back in Duke.
Two years ago, Kentucky lost to South Carolina on March 1. The Wildcats were the picture of a relatively ordinary team, one good enough to get a mid-level seed in the NCAAs, but nothing beyond that. Venturing beyond Rupp Arena was a scary prospect for those Cats during the regular season. They entered the SEC Tournament with no momentum and very little reason to believe that they could flip the switch.
However, Calipari simplified his approach. The urgency of the postseason conveyed messages players were not receptive to earlier in the season. The light somehow did go on for the Harrisons. Kentucky managed to hit one big perimeter shot after another, following a regular season in which clutch threes were hard to come by. The Wildcats ended Wichita State’s pursuit of an unbeaten season in a classic round-of-32 game. They made a stirring late rally against Louisville, giving Rick Pitino his first EVER loss in a Sweet 16 game. They fended off a superb Michigan team in an Elite Eight thriller. They nipped Wisconsin in a riveting Final Four national semifinal. Only in the national title game against Connecticut did the well run dry, but Kentucky and Calipari turned a sour season into a delicious glass of lemonade.
Here we are in 2016, and one can see that Kentucky is once again headed for a seed which will mean a rough NCAA tournament draw. This time, the problem is not in the backcourt, as it was in 2014. The current challenge for the Cats is that their frontcourt has to be a lot more assertive and productive.
On a broader level, the Wildcats are not the favorite in the SEC right now, following their loss at Auburn on Saturday. Texas A&M is the team which is destroying opponents the way last season’s Kentucky team did. Calipari knows deep inside that the Wildcats will not be a 1 seed or a 2 seed, and that a 3 might be the team’s ceiling.
Keep in mind that with LSU and Vanderbilt performing far below preseason expectations, the SEC does not offer enough quality-win opportunities on a regular basis. It’s going to be very hard for Kentucky to grab enough signature wins to propel itself way up the leaderboard. Winning at Kansas on January 30 appears to be necessary if Kentucky wants to have any real chance at a 3 seed.
Yet, Calipari showed in 2014 that an 8 seed doesn’t have to be an impediment to a Final Four (and national title game) run. Similarly, Calipari took a fourth-seeded UK crew to the Final Four in 2011 (where again, Connecticut ended the fun for the Cats in a Texas-based football dome).
In both 2014 and 2011, Kentucky didn’t duck the No. 1 seed in its region. The Wildcats ousted No. 1 Wichita State two years ago, and they knocked off top-seeded Ohio State five years ago. Coach Cal, like Coach K, might not be a magician by trade, but in March, he certainly seems to sleep at a Holiday Inn Express… and get the most out of his players, regardless of struggles in the regular season.
Will Duke and UK, Coach Cal and Coach K, get it done again this season?
We can’t wait to find out.