Young Cats are running out of time

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LEXINGTON, Ky. -- There he stood in a baggy sweat shirt and gray pants three sizes too big. He had a scruffy shadow, a wool hat and a dreary gaze.

Alex Poythress looked tired.

On Feb. 15, only hours prior to Kentucky's first loss to Florida on its home floor in six years, Poythress, like the rest of us, wondered how Kentucky had become Samson.

The Wildcats were heroes in the offseason. But once the season started, they failed to meet the expectations that anticipated championships, shattered records and historic heights. 

"We just gotta keep on coming together as a team, keep on competing, keep on fighting," he said.

The same philosophy applies today, as the SEC tournament begins. The Wildcats finished the regular season with a 22-9 record and an absence from the top-25 rankings. But Kentucky's disappointing season is not as simple as wins and losses. The merger of remarkable talent and unrestrained expectations spawned an elixir that made most of the college basketball world drunk on Kentucky, as evidenced by its preseason No. 1 ranking.

Right now, the Wildcats don't look like a team that's capable of a lengthy stay in the NCAA tournament, but they'll be invited because of a résumé that features few quality wins and a strong schedule. 

They still look good on paper. They carry the nation's top offensive rebounding rate, according to Ken Pomeroy. They have four players averaging double figures. They boast six or seven NBA prospects.

And they've also lost to South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas (twice). The SEC is arguably the weakest major conference in America. But it was too strong for Kentucky on some nights.

"We gotta get our mojo back," coach John Calipari said during Monday's SEC media teleconference.

The hoopla surrounding Calipari's latest recruiting class seemed valid. No program, not even Kentucky, had ever signed six McDonald's All-Americans: Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young, Dakari Johnson, Julius Randle and Marcus Lee.

But it wasn't the first time that a group of incoming players had attracted such praise.

John Wooden signed NBA and collegiate great Lew Alcindor, who Sporting News writer Mike DeCourcy said was the centerpiece of "the greatest college recruiting class of all time." Steve Fisher orchestrated a movement known as the Fab Five at Michigan. Thad Matta lured Greg Oden, Daequan Cook and Michael Conley Jr. -- three players who were first round picks in the 2007 NBA draft -- to Columbus, Ohio. Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May were all members of the 2002 recruiting class that led North Carolina to the 2005 national title.

This, however, was different. 

"On paper, [Kentucky's recruiting class] was as good as just about any," said Dave Telep, former ESPN analyst and current scout for the San Antonio Spurs. "Highest-rated guys in [the] class at multiple positions."

It was the first time such a level of anticipation had accompanied a freshman class in the social media era. Calipari brought them together. And the Twitterverse -- a hodgepodge of hype fueled by fans and analysts -- made them legends, albeit prematurely.

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