Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and ’07 behind future NBA first-round picks Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer. In 2007-08, Donovan had to replace those three and the Gators slipped to a 21-11 regular-season record and settled for the NIT.
In the 2008-09 season, North Carolina was penciled in as the team to beat to start the year, and the Heels didn’t disappoint. UNC won every game in the NCAA Tournament by double digits for the school’s fifth national title. Carolina had a +121 point differential in the tournament, No. 2 all-time to Kentucky’s +129 in 1996.
Roy Williams lost the likes of Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington off that team. It showed the next season as the young Heels finished 16-16 in the regular season (5-11 in the ACC) and also went to the NIT.
Last season, Kentucky steamrolled its way to the school’s eighth national championship with one of the best freshman classes in NCAA history led by 2012 NBA first-round picks Anthony Davis (the national player of the year and Final Four Most Outstanding Player went No. 1 overall), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (No. 2) and Marquis Teague (No. 29). Kentucky finished 38-2 and became the fourth team since 1982 to enter the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 1 in the AP poll to win the national championship.
John Calipari lost every significant contributor off that club but welcomed yet another stellar freshman group. However, with a lack of veteran leadership in place — which last year’s Cats had with Terrence Jones, Darius Miller and Doron Lamb — the kids are struggling and UK could find itself on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday next month.
Kentucky was the book’s preseason national championship favorite but now is +2500 to repeat. The Wildcats dropped to 12-6 (3-2 in SEC) with Tuesday’s 59-55 loss at Alabama. The Wildcats led by nine at intermission and suffered their first loss when up by that much at halftime since December 2007.
The only freshman to live up to the billing consistently has been center Nerlens Noel. The 6-foot-10, 228-pound Davis clone is averaging 10.7 points, 9.4 rebounds and 4.2 blocks per game. Noel is raw offensively, as evidenced by his eight points against the Tide. He also was held to eight in losses to Louisville and Baylor. Kentucky simply doesn’t have an alpha male to count on offensively when necessary.
UK will be a big home favorite Saturday against LSU but then faces big challenges next week at No. 23 Ole Miss and Texas A&M, which beat Kentucky by 12 at Rupp Arena earlier this month. The Cats also still have to play No. 8 Florida twice. If Kentucky can win eight of its 13 regular-season games remaining, it would finish 20-11 and 11-7 in the SEC. That should be enough for an at-large NCAA bid regardless of what happens in the SEC Tournament. If UK finishes something like 6-7, a deep run in the conference tournament would be necessary.