I am unabashed fan of the University Kentucky Wildcats basketball team. I have been for over 40 years. We just completed one of our more disappointing seasons with an ignominious loss to some school called Robert Morris University–in the first round of the freakin’ NIT, no less.
I can assure you that this is only one of many blog posts about our beloved Cats’ season of shame. I do not write this in effort to contribute to any journalistic analysis of our season. I do not suppose to have any original insights or solutions. Indeed, it is far too late now.
Instead, I write this as a form of therapy, a cathartic exercise which will help me deal with my grief. Oh, I tried to work through it with a series of obscenity-laced tweets during the Robert Morris game, but those only brought me temporary solace. Twitter tracked my mental and emotional deterioration:
We feel such losses deep in our souls. Kentucky Basketball is important to us. How important? Far too important, I suppose. The sun isn’t as bright. The flowers smell of the foul stench of defeat. Our value as human beings is lessened. Other than that, we’re in good shape.
Our fan base’s immediate reaction is to blame our coach. John Calipari, of course, is our coach. Cal, we call him, much like we called Joe B. Hall “Joe B.” Tubby Smith was Tubby. Billy Gillispie was “Billy Clyde.” Rick Pitino was just Pitino. Eddie Sutton was Eddie, until he got us in NCAA trouble, then he was Sutton. Adolph Rupp was, naturally, Coach Rupp. We are familiar with our coaches. We love them until they stumble. Then, they are blithering idiots incapable of coaching in a church league.
I’m not going down that road. We won the NCAA Championship just last year. Cal can coach. I know that. You can’t give him a total pass, but he didn’t forget how to coach in just a few months.
WHAT WENT RIGHT?
To be honest, not much about this season went well. We lost to Louisville. We also lost to the likes of Texas A&M and Baylor–at home! We didn’t win the Southeastern Conference Championship, and we got crushed by lowly Vanderbilt in our first game in the SEC Tournament. Nevertheless, let’s talk positives.
Nerlens Noel is a positive. He was exactly the type of player described coming out of high school last year–high energy and great on defense. His offensive game, as predicted, was raw. Overall, though, he was great. He had the unfortunate timing of following Anthony Davis at UK, but Nerlens was outstanding. As a bonus, he seems to like being at UK. We love that.
Jarrod Polson is a positive. Polson is the back up point guard. He is from Nicholasville, Kentucky–about 15 miles from UK’s campus. He came here as a walk-on and is the kind of player that Kentucky fans love. Considering his athletic limitations, he played well. He hustles and is tough. We like that. He’s the kind of guy who will be able to live the rest of his life as Ex-Cat, meaning he will always be a celebrity here.
We beat Florida the last game of the regular season. We thought we had no shot, but did it. That was sweet.
We signed another excellent recruiting class for next year, maybe the best ever. But, that’s really a positive for next year.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Boy, oh, boy, where do I start? I know that a lot of folks say that it’s unfair to criticize college players. I understand that but disagree. First, these are grown men–young but adults. If you can join the Army, vote and get married, you’re an adult. Second, playing basketball at UK brings with it opportunities disproportionate to one’s contribution. All UK fans can name numerous men who have made post-collegiate careers of being Ex-Cats. That may not be sensible, but it’s a fact. If you’re going to get all the praise, you have to be willing to take some of the heat. Coach Cal has said many times that “Kentucky isn’t for everyone.” Indeed.
Recruiting: Since Cal has been at UK, he’s recruited the following NBA players: John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight, Marquis Teague, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He’s spoiled us. This year, he brought us Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin. As fans, we just considered the roster reloaded. It didn’t work that way.
Cauley-Stein was as good as advertised, meaning he’s a raw prospect. He has a lot of work to do and played like it. I don’t think anyone was surprised. He didn’t really improve during the season–a rarity for one of Cal’s players.
Poythress and Goodwin were the two who frustrated us most. Poythress looks like a player at 6′ 7″, 240 pounds. He’s quick, athletic and strong. Unfortunately, on the court, he reminds us of Richard (“Master Blaster”) Madison, a heralded recruit from the 1980’s. As one of Madison’s coaches said, Richard played “just good enough to get you beat.” Poythress has the look of a player who doesn’t like playing. I’m not sure coaching can fix that.
Goodwin plays hard–maybe too much so. We grew weary of his wild, head-down drives to the basket that resulted in hopeless shots or charges. He never seemed to understand his role in the offense. His defense was inconsistent–or nonexistent–all season. In bygone days, a player of his type would have logged 10-12 minutes a game behind more veteran players. We probably would have seen flashes of greatness making us carp that he deserved more playing time.
I am convinced that both Poythress and Goodwin have great potential. If they come back to school, we’ll see different, better players. I hope we get a chance to find out if I’m right.
Nerlens’ Knee: Just when started to see signs of consistent play, Nerlens Noel blew out his knee, a gruesome injury that ended his season–and ours. An under-achieving team lost its best player. Cal said it best: “After we lost Nerlens, it’s been torture.” And so it was.
Point Guard: In Cal’s three previous seasons, our point guards have been John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague. All three played one year, and all three were NBA 1st round draft picks. This year’s point guard was Ryan Harrow, a transfer from North Carolina State. Harrow is the most difficult kind of player to critique. He doesn’t have the skills to play the position at the level Cal needs. I feel for the young man. I really do. It has to be a difficult, pressure-packed situation. Facts are facts.
The coaching staff doesn’t get a pass on this one. Cal recruited Harrow in high school. He saw a year of him at NC State and a year of him in practice. He had ample evaluation time. Again, I feel for Harrow. I’m convinced he has played the best he can. He was put in a position where success wasn’t possible. That one goes on the coach.
WHAT DID I LEARN?
I don’t know that I learned anything new. It’s more like I re-learned some things (if that’s even possible). Maybe I was just reminded of some stuff.
Championships are hard to win: I’ve been a UK fan since 1970. UK has won 4 titles. It’s not easy to do. Winning one year doesn’t mean you’ll win the next year or even make the tournament or even win one game in the NIT. (see 1978-79 season).
Losing your whole team is tough: Imagine this: Your alma mater wins the national championship. Then, all its starters and its sixth man leave. They are replaced by freshmen. Your school is the only Division I team in the entire country that doesn’t return even one player who started even one game. What would you expect? At Kentucky, we expected a strong run at another title. Perhaps we’re unreasonable.
Cal is an excellent coach, but not a magician: This team never meshed. Maybe it was the lack of dependable veterans. Maybe it was the wrong mix of talent. Whatever the reason, the light bulb never came on. Cal couldn’t get them to buy in. He’s done it so well before that I don’t think I can hang that one on him. Like I said, these are men. They didn’t act like it.
You need a bench: UK had no bench this year, at least no players upon whom we could count for steady play. Not only was this an in-game weakness, but there was no risk of any under-achieving starter losing his job. Cal says this won’t ever be the case here again. I believe him.
So, there here we are, a disastrous season at an end. How bad was it? We were 21-12 and finished second in our conference. That’s a train wreck at my alma mater. I’m over it now. Besides, next year, we are going to be LOADED!