Kentucky basketball's history after bad seasons offers hope for unforgettable 2021-22

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON – Kentucky basketball is in unprecedented territory.

Not since 1927 has college basketball’s winningest program entered a season coming off one as poor as 2020-21 went for the Wildcats. Kentucky had posted just one losing record since the Great Depression before last season.

With the 2020 NCAA Tournament canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kentucky has now gone two years without playing a postseason game. Even after last season’s embarrassment, the bar for success is set higher than reaching the NCAA Tournament alone. The current Wildcats will need to make a deep run to alleviate concerns last season was more than a one-season fluke.

The good news is Kentucky’s few missteps since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 have been followed with some of the most memorable seasons in program history.

Here is a closer look at how Kentucky performed in seasons after missing the NCAA Tournament since 1985.

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Christian Laettner watches as UK's Sean Woods puts up the last Kentucky basket that put UK ahead 103 to 102 in the last seconds, but Duke was left with enough time for Laettner to make the game winning shot and end UK's hopes of a final four bid. 
Mar 28, 1992

Kentucky’s only losing season between 1927 and last season came in 1988-89 with a 13-19 record. That embarrassment was compounded with the NCAA placed Kentucky on three years of probation, banning the program from postseason play for the next two seasons. UK and new coach Rick Pitino finally returned to the tournament in 1992 with one of the most beloved teams in Kentucky history. The “Unforgettables” would reach the Elite Eight before falling to Christian Laettner and Duke in college basketball’s most famous game.


Kentucky's John Wall dunks the ball in the game against Tennessee.   
Mar. 13, 2010

The Wildcats streak of 17 straight NCAA Tournament appearances ended in 2009. That misstep ended Billy Gillispie’s two-year stint as head coach, ushering in the John Calipari era. Calipari quickly returned Kentucky to the top of the college basketball world by signing John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe. The 2009-10 Wildcats won their first 19 games, eventually reaching the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed with just two losses. However, the team’s one clear flaw, a lack of consistent 3-point shooting options, ended its NCAA Tournament run in the Elite Eight versus West Virginia.

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Calipari’s reliance on one-and-done players has meant it is generally difficult to carry much momentum, positive or negative, from one season to another because of a lack of continuity between teams. That wide variance in results was evident in 2012-13 when Kentucky followed its 2012 national championship by missing the NCAA Tournament. Unlike the 1991-92 and 2009-10 Kentucky teams that won both the SEC regular season and tournament titles, the 2013-14 team struggled for much of the regular season. Kentucky entered the 2014 NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed but rode Aaron Harrison’s clutch shooting all the way to the national championship game. There, Kentucky’s improbable run ended with a loss to Connecticut, but wins over Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin had earned the team a place in the hearts of Big Blue Nation.

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