Posted: 3:49 a.m. Tuesday, March 19, 2013
By Ken Howlett
After the Kentucky Wildcats embarrassing loss, a non-performance against the Vanderbilt Commodores in the second round of the SEC tournament last week -- a game UK had to win to ensure an NCAA bid -- the 'Cats now find themselves properly humiliated by being omitted from the guest list for this year's Big Dance; unable to defend last season's national championship.
All season UK fans waited for this team to turn it on; to see the light bulb flicker; to get it. But it never happened. I don't believe it's controversial to state that the reasons for this group not maturing into a team-to-be-respected are many. None of which are more important, though, than looking at how UK performed in wins, against how the team played in losses.
And how a team, faced with a basketball life-and-death scenario, chose to redefine what it means to "lay down."
(The following is startling, so be prepared.)
The difference in winning and losing is sometimes determined by the blow of a whistle, a loose ball, or a 3-point shot nipped with the tip of a finger. Sometimes basketball is a game of inches. Unfortunately, not so for the 2012-2013 Wildcats, for their set-backs have rarely been nail biters, instead, most all of Kentucky's losses have been nothing if not emphatic:
Making offensive matters worse
In my view, UK played well in three of its losses: Duke, Louisville, and Texas A&M.; Against the Blue Devils and Cards, UK ran up against legitimately better teams. The 'Cats fought hard and with passion, but came up short. It happens. Against A&M;, Kentucky encountered an unconscious Elston Turner, and was the unfortunate recipient of his 40 point career night shooting extravaganza. It happens.
Taking those thoughts into consideration, and counting the three losses as "good" set-backs, the cumulative numbers of UK's eight other losses paint an even grimmer picture of UK's losing performances this season:
In eight of UK's 11 losses ...
Kentucky head coach John Calipari makes no secret of his love of defense, as he knows it takes a consistently strong defensive effort to compete for championships (see 2012 UK, 2013 UofL). Unfortunately, it is a lack of consistently strong Wildcat defense which is one of the reasons this season's squad struggled so mightily:
Making defensive matters worse
UK lost to three teams this season, Arkansas, Georgia, and Alabama, that aren't good shooting teams, regardless of who they are playing. Combined, UK held those three squads to just under 36 percent accuracy, a number which pulls down considerably UK's cumulative defensive stats in losses.
So let's take those three games out of the equation, and see how UK performed defensively in its other eight losses:
In eight of UK's 11 losses ...
What one has to keep in mind when dissecting the immense difference in UK's numbers when comparing wins and losses, is the overwhelming youth of the squad (seven of UK's 11 losses were on the road, where youth is often revealed), along with the fact that no upperclassmen leadership was available to this group of 'Cats. And by "upperclassmen leadership," I mean a player who has been in the program two or three years, and experienced some semblance of success on the court while wearing a UK uni.
This season there was no Patrick Patterson, or Darius Miller, or DeAndre Liggins, or Josh Harrellson. No freshman akin to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the player most likely to kick some booty when needed, then go out and play like he's never going to play ball again.
That hurt this team, more than even I thought it would. But, that fact alone does not acquit this group from the charge of not playing with passion. Not playing with great effort every game. Not playing with focus. Not having a will to win. All the complaints about this team that have been bandied about by fans, the media, and most importantly, Calipari and a portion of his players, as reasons for UK's disappointing season.
The latest example:
Julius Mays had this to say on Monday when he was asked if Cal was right by tweeting to his over 1 million Twitter followers that he was glad UK was going on the road for its initial NIT game, because he didn't want UK fans buying another ticket to a game before the team proved they still wanted to play:
"I think he's right, I think it's the right thing to say. We don't want fans to go buy tickets, and we might have a few guys that really don't want to be there, and show it, and we lay another egg on the first game. So I think we do have to prove ourselves that we want to play, and we do have something to prove, so I hope all our guys are ready to play."
I've had the great pleasure of being the color man for the local high school basketball games over the last two seasons (although I'm probably not very good, I do enjoy the gig). In that time, I've seen over 50 high school boys and girl's basketball games, most, up close and personal. Many games I've called while sitting not more than 10 feet from the head coaches of both teams. I've heard the passionate admonitions from the coaches pleading with their teams to play smart, to move the ball, to improve their spacing. I've heard coaches plea their cases with the officials, sometimes begging for a fair whistle.
But not once have I heard a coach compel his team to play harder, or to play with more passion.
One of the many joys of calling high school games is to witness the level of competitive fire the typical high school kid possesses. Every game is life or death. Every game is played as if it's the last time the player will grace the hard wood -- Diving on the floor for loose balls, vigilantly battling for every rebound, and laying out to tip a pass or an opponent's shot are all common occurrences.
The contrast, as the basketball season moved along, between what I was seeing on the high school hardwood versus what I saw when UK played, became alarmingly stark. Kentucky's lack of effort, and the indifference displayed on the part of some of the players stood out as pathetic. Oh, it wasn't every game. But it was enough games to drive UK out of the national picture and into the outhouse (at least for now).
That's the game we play as UK fans, though. We have to be able to accept the bad that sometimes comes along with the great. With Calipari bringing in top rated recruiting classes on a yearly basis, it's not unreasonable to expect that eventually he is going to "miss" on a few of the top ranked players (read: Cal will bring to UK a player who lacks heart, the will to win, and is "hard to coach").
And when that happens, we wish them well on their way out, and anxiously await the arrival of new blood.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!
To follow me on Twitter: @KenHowlett