"By the end of the year, you're judged by how far you go in the [NCAAs]," said Wildcats coach Jay Wright, whose nine-deep team was eliminated March 22 in Buffalo by former Big East rival Connecticut, which is still alive in the tournament. "I never evaluate our team or our program that way. But we understand the perceptions nationally and for our fans, that it was a disappointment. If we'd gotten to New York [for the round of 16], it probably would've been OK, for whatever reasons.
"It's not going to change what we do. So many little things can happen in a tournament game that can cost you. We had some breaks when we got to the Sweet 16 [in 2008] and the Final Four [in 2009]. If you accept the credit for that, which we did, you have to accept the criticism when you don't. That's just part of it . . .
"It's the complexity of college sports now. I was reading John Wooden's book from back in the '60s, and it's amazing how simple everything was. Now it's just completely different. I think it's a good thing to have expectations put on you. That means you're doing something right. But we didn't do as well in the postseason. So that's where we are."
Where they were 2 years ago was 13-19, with people asking a lot of questions that they hadn't been asking 2 years earlier. Now, like the conference they play in, the questions have changed. The team that went to the Final Four finished fourth in the Big East. Who remembers that? From 2005-09, they went 11-5 in the Madness, after going 3-6 from 1989-2004. Now they won two of their last six, even though they were seeded second twice. The 2009-10 team was 20-1 but lost five of its last eight. The next season, the Wildcats were 16-1, but dropped their last seven.
And so it goes. You can never minimize 28-3. Still, the closing 1-2 is a palpable trump card.
"The point is, once you get to the second [NCAA] game, the difference is such a fine line," Wright said. "You can't let one loss change everything, even though we know some people felt we never proved ourselves. But it's only one game.
"When we got to [the Big East tourney], I could sense that, for the first time, the target was on our back. We were getting all the attention. Maybe this group just hadn't been in that position yet and didn't grasp how hard teams were going to come at us. I think that'll be the next step. We'd worked so hard to accomplish something [regular-season title] that we were kind of going about our business. Subconsciously, I didn't sense that they were hungry enough. They were still all in, 100 percent, but a little something was missing. That kind of killer mindset."
The 2006 team that reached the Elite Eight had six seniors, including Randy Foye and Allen Ray. The '09 bunch had three senior starters and Scottie Reynolds, who was like a fourth. It makes a difference. Ask many of the teams in this year's tourney not named Kentucky. Bell, as important as he was, was the lone 4-year senior on this team. Next season, Wright will have two, in JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard, to go with two experienced juniors in Ryan Arcidiacano and Daniel Ochefu. Also, Rice transfer Dylan Ennis should be more comfortable, now that his transition year is behind him. Promising freshmen Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins figure to keep getting better. Newcomer Phil Booth could contribute right away. Soph Darryl Reynolds and frosh Mikal Bridges also might work their way into the rotation. Which means the the Wildcats should again be versatile and perimeter-oriented.
And good. The question is how good.
"We might not go 28-3, but we might be a better team," Wright said. "It's the first year we've really got everything back in place, after kind of our reconstruction. I talked to Malik [Wayns] the other day, and he said that when this team lost, it was never because of unselfishness or not playing hard. It was because we missed shots or things didn't happen. He said in his last year [2011-12], sometimes they lost focus.
"We had two guys on this team who went through that mess. The young guys have no clue what that was like. That's good. James Bell set the tone for what it's like to be a leader. In terms of culture, those dudes are ready to take that on. That's what they want to be, because that's all they know . . . Maybe that's why [Bell] got exhausted, psychologically. He had to carry everything. Tony [Chennault] was a great senior for us, but he was only here 2 years [after transferring from Wake Forest]."
This group said they used last year's opening NCAA 8-9 loss to North Carolina as an impetus coming back. Maybe that UConn game can serve the same purpose going forward.
"We always kind of put a close on the end of the season," Wright said. "Guys change, their minds change. I didn't know it had that much of an impact on them until they talked about it [late in the season]. Evidently, it stayed with them, so I learned something.
"I've been doing this a long time. The first half of that Seton Hall game [in the Big East tourney], when I never thought this team could perform like it did, I finally realized they're still kids. After all these years, sometimes you can't imagine where their minds are going to be. That's the constant challenge, to keep their minds right."
Especially when the bottom line supposedly counts most.
On Twitter: @mikekerndn