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March 17, 2010

The Comeback Cats

How a crop of superstar freshmen helped salvage Kentucky basketball

The preliminaries are over. Let the real season begin for the University of Kentucky Wildcats and Big Blue Nation, the most rabid fan base in all of sports.

The 32-2 Wildcats won their 44th SEC regular season title in a walk. Asked what that meant, UK coach John Calipari replied, “Nothing.”

UK’s conference tournament championship captured Sunday against Mississippi State was number 26 for the school. So was it important? “If you want me to be honest about how I think,” Calipari said, “the SEC tournament is about our seed in the NCAA Tournament.”

Kentucky, as expected, landed on the top line, earning a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday. The Cats open their planned six game journey to Titletown in New Orleans on Thursday against East Tennessee State.

It is, by all accounts, a stunning turn of events for this vaunted program, in disarray and in the NIT just a season ago. The questions now are these for this youthful band of Wildcats:

Will Kentucky plunder the field of 65 to grab its eighth national championship, as the Good Lord deigned it to be when John Calipari was hired as savior last spring?

When the dust settles after the first Monday in April, what will be the legacy of this precocious lot of basketballers? Where will they fit in the storied history of Kentucky basketball? Will these exalted freshmen — John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe — transcend similarly extolled novice groups from other schools in seasons past? How long will this gang stay in Lexington? Or will they move on? And, if so, how will they be remembered?

It is not only against the powers of this season that these Cats shall be measured.

Heralded groups of newcomers have arrived in the Bluegrass throughout the decades to make a mark on Big Blue history. Some succeeded. Some did not. What will be the fate of the Wall, Cousins, Bledsoe triumvirate?

Several past standard bearers come to mind.

Let’s start some 60 years ago, when Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey and Lou Tsioropoulos were the idols of the Wildcat faithful in the early 50s. They did not play as freshmen in ‘49-’50, as was the rule in those days.

As sophomores, they contributed on one of Baron Adolph Rupp’s national championship teams. Though the pivotal roles on that crown-wearing contingent were Bill Spivey, Shelby Linville and two fellows who went on to become big-time high school coaches in the commonwealth, Bobby Watson and Guy Strong.

The next year, Kentucky lost to St. John’s in the NCAA regional final. In ‘52-’53, the trio sat as seniors, along with the rest of the team. The NCAA banned UK from play as a result of a point-shaving scandal.

Hagan, Ramsey and Tsioropoulos returned as grad students to compete the following year. They fashioned a perfect 25-0 record, beating LSU in a playoff for the SEC title, but demurred from playing in the NCAA tourney because they were ineligible. Post-graduate students were then prohibited from tournament play.

Another contingent to compare this current crop with is Jack Givens, Rick Robey, James Lee and Mike Phillips. As freshmen, they played on the Wildcat team that lost the NCAA title to UCLA in John Wooden’s final game in 1975. The following year, they won the NIT, finishing the season with a 20-10 record. As juniors, they fashioned a 26-4 record, losing in the regional finals.

But in 1978, they made sure Kentucky stood once again atop the college basketball world, beating Duke for the title. Jack Givens was national player of the year and most outstanding player in the Final Four.

The other noteworthy UK freshmen group against whom this year’s frosh will be measured is the underachieving Sam Bowie/Derrick Hord/Dirk Minniefield/Charles Hurt bunch. They never made it to the Final Four and are most remembered for losing the regional final in Knoxville to Louisville in 1983’s Dream Game.

Two other freshman gangs in the post-UCLA era come to mind: Michigan’s Fab Five and Florida’s ‘04s.

Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, JuWan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson comprised college basketball’s most famous recruiting haul. The five Wolverines all started that rookie season in 1991, losing the title game to Duke. As sophomores, they also made it to the last Monday of the season, falling to North Carolina in the game best remembered for Webber calling a timeout his team didn’t have with only 11 seconds to go. That was the last season they played together.

Florida’s class of Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Lee Humphrey is clearly the most successful since the reign of John Wooden at UCLA. This group won the national championship as sophomores. Then did it again the following season. They were the only repeat champions ever with the same starting lineup.

They left school after that second title. Florida hasn’t fully recovered, despite the recruiting and coaching prowess of coach Billy Donovan.

So what about John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe?

Wall and Cousins are the two highest-scoring freshmen in UK history. Bledsoe is also among the top 10. Their presence — along with junior Patrick Patterson and coach John Calipari — has immediately rejuvenated Kentucky Wildcat basketball, which wandered in the relative hinterland of college hoops recently.

But it is a short window of opportunity in the one-and-done era. Few doubt that John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins will toil in the NBA next season, not in Rupp Arena. Patrick Patterson, though a junior, participated in Senior Day festivities “just in case” he leaves after this season. Eric Bledsoe, the most unpredictable of the freshman, might also jump ship.

If that scenario plays out, then Coach Cal will have to weave his recruiting magic yet again to keep the Cats in the upper echelon.

The current contingent probably has only this one season, just one NCAA Tournament, to stake its claim to permanent adoration and prominence in the Wildcat history books.

If they fall short of a title, if their final record has a third loss on the right hand side, what will be the legacy of Wall, Cousins and Bledsoe?

Program resurrectors? For sure.

You Tube dance stars? No question.

But what else? Will they be disdained as mercenaries, guys who came in for a single season, learned a few chops, honed their skills, padded their resumes and then, eschewing any sense of loyalty, moved on?

Or, will their names be fondly recalled in years to come, like those of Dan Issel and Cotton Nash and Richie Farmer and Jamal Mashburn?

Watching this incredibly talented but still very young trio in the next few weeks will be fascinating. Will their basketball abilities trump their lack of mature hoops acumen? They stayed solid under pressure against Mississippi State on Sunday. Have they the wherewithal to do the same in the weeks to come on a bigger stage?

That’s why they play the games.