For the last several weeks, the debate has raged among those of us in the Big Blue Nation about what is acceptable criticism of this year’s edition of the Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team. There are those who believe that Coach Cal and the guys are completely immune from criticism and anyone who criticizes them are not fans. “If you have anything negative to say about the team, go root for another one” was a theme that seemed to permeate this group. They feel that our coach and our players are above reproach and can NEVER be talked about negatively. They will defend, repeatedly and angrily, their stance that “no one could do what Calipari has done in his time at UK”. My message to this base: you are wrong. In fact, all Calipari has done is continue the tradition set by every UK basketball coach, who is not named Adolph Rupp. Coaches Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith all won one NCAA National Championship during their tenure at the University of Kentucky. Hall and Pitino had multiple Final Four appearances, as well. So, you need to realize that Coach Cal is not the “god in human form” that you attempt to make him.
(Photos courtesy of UK Athletics)
The other group that is very loud and opinionated in the Big Blue Nation is the “Coach Cal and his ‘one and done’ guys are trash” group. They insist that if Coach Cal recruited mainly 3-4 year type players, that UK would be better off. This thought process insists that if we had a roster full of Sasha Killeya-Jones, Marcus Lee and Dominique Hawkins type players, we would win more national titles. Their rationale is that experience trumps talent. My message to this portion of the base: you are wrong, too. Every National Championship team that the University of Kentucky has fielded, all eight of them, has had a superstar or two on the team. If the ‘one and done’ rule had existed in the Rupp era, players like Alex Groza, Wah Wah Jones and Vernon Hatton would have left after one year. In the Hall era, Kevin Grevey, Jack Givens, Rex Chapman and Kenny Walker would have been ‘one and dones’. Pitino would have lost Jamal Mashburn, Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer and Jared Prickett to the ‘one and done’ rule. Tubby Smith was the first UK coach who had to deal with the ‘one and done’ rule. However, Tubby’s system did not require him to recruit the type of player that would leave after one year. Tubby had some great teams, built with superstars (Tayshaun Prince, Keith Bogans) and solid role players. However, he only won one National Championship at UK. So, by this measure, the ‘one and done’ rule is not why Cal’s teams have struggled lately.
(Photos courtesy of Big Blue History)
The truth of the problems with the team this year lies somewhere between the two arguments I have already discussed. That truth is the fact that he missed on some of his primary targets in this past recruiting cycle. Duke out-recruited Coach Cal for Marvin Bagley, Gary Trent Jr. and Wendell Carter. Trae Young decided to stay home and play for Oklahoma. Mo Bamba chose Shaka Smart and Texas. DeAndre Ayton chose Arizona and Michael Porter chose Missouri. Any combination of these players, added to what UK has, would make UK a very formidable team. However, as it stands, we are a team of mismatched pieces. We have no dominant big man (no offense to Nick Richards), a cluster of athletic wings who are decent (not great) shooters and two point guards who are good, but not elite. Add all of that up and you have a team that struggles to score for stretches, can not put a team away and lacks mental toughness from time to time. The one thing that they do fairly well is defend, which isn’t hard to do when all but one of the main rotation of players are 6’4” or taller (Quade Green is generously listed at 6’1”).
(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
What does this all mean? It means that, when we are playing well (think WVU second half, Virginia Tech), we can beat a lot of teams. When we are playing poorly (think four game losing streak, first half WVU), we could lose in the first round of the NIT. This team is a Jekyll-Hyde type of team. We are very young, I agree. However, 27 games into a season, these guys have had experiences, both at home and on the road, to equip them to improve and look like the McDonald’s All-Americans that they were when we recruited them. I will always cheer for the University of Kentucky, in every sport, for every game. However, to say that those who have reservations or criticisms of this team “aren’t real fans” and “need to go root for some other team” is misguided and unnecessary. This team could suddenly gel, win the SEC Tournament and make a nice NCAA Tournament run. Or, they could lose the rest of the regular season games, the first game in the SEC Tournament and miss the NCAA Tournament. Both scenarios are possible. Again, I think that the realistic outlook is somewhere between those two scenarios. I think that we will split the remaining regular season games, win two in St. Louis and win one or two in the NCAA Tournament. Hopefully, this means that we will only lose Knox and Diallo and have a super-team, requiring platoons, next season, much like the 38-1 team. Either way, I will always root for the team, but I will criticize them when it is called for. That doesn’t make me a “fair-weather fan”. It makes me a well-informed fan.
A Wildcat Fan Since ‘85