Since the last time I’ve been on here, a few semi-important things have happened in world of Kentucky Basketball:
– Kentucky defeated Florida on Sunday, 74-66.
– John Wall was named SEC Player of the Year.
– Patrick Patterson, DeMarcus Cousins, and Wall were all named first team All-SEC (Patterson was also named to its All-Defensive team).
– DeMarcus Cousins was named SEC Freshman of the Year.
– Wall, Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe were named to the SEC All-Freshman team.
– Yahoo Sports dubbed John Wall its National Player of the Year.
– DeMarcus Cousins and Wall were both named to Yahoo’s first team All-American squad.
– John Calipari’s attached his name to a dying American muscle car.
– And oh yeah, Perry Stevenson, Ramon Harris, and Mark Krebbs played their final home game in a Kentucky uniform.
Let’s start with the Florida contest. I think of all the games I’ve seen Kentucky play this season, their finale against Florida may have done the best job of epitomizing their season thus far: at times on Sunday, Kentucky looked like the indestructible juggernaut we’ve seen flashes of all season; at others, they looked young, out-of-sync, and extremely beatable. This is a problem Kentucky’s faced from the start, and even now, with the regular season over and post-season play ready to begin, continues to be the issue for Calipari’s squad: they play exactly like what they are – talented, dynamic, and capable of putting up points in bunches…but young. It’s almost become an unspoken assumption at this point, but for every big run this team has, it has an almost-equal number of droughts that allow their opponents to stay with them. Florida had no business making that an eight-point game, but they did, largely because of scoring and defensive lapses that are characteristic of a young team that occasionally looks disinterested. The question now is, how will these intensity lapses affect Kentucky’s title chances? In my opinion, it all very much depends on how the seeding and NCAA brackets play out. There are a few teams that legitimately concern me, with Kansas being at the top of the list. After them, Villanova, and to a lesser degree, Syracuse and West Virginia. But I really think we’re the one team in the tournament, more so than any other – seeing how we’re the most talented – that controls its own destiny. If Kentucky’s offense is clicking and they’re not giving teams layups on defense, no one in the country can keep up. Problem is, of course, Kentucky’s play varies so much – both game-to-game and minute-to-minute of any given game – that this point is almost moot. It doesn’t matter that you have the three of the best five players in America if the offense is out of sync and the defense is a crap shoot.
So, with all that said, I think the intensity and focus levels of this team as they head into the SEC Tournament are two things worth watching. If they come out at the start of SEC Tournament play and look the way they did for the first twenty minutes of the Florida game, that’ll be a good sign. If they look like the team that was out there for the last twenty minutes, the future may not be as bright.
As for all the post-season accolades handed to Wildcats over the past few days, I think the first thing that should be mentioned is the tremendous number of Thank Yous that need to go in the ear of John Calipari. Calipari’s hire was based largely on his rep as a recruiter, but not enough credit goes to him for the way he develops that talent once he gets his hands on it (You’ll notice that Calipari did not win SEC Coach of the Year. It went to Kevin Stallings, which is just an absolute joke).
As Tubby Smith showed us after he signed that Rondo-Morris-Crawford-Bradley class in ’04, it’s not as easy to rein in tons of talent as guys like Calipari make it seem. Not that I’d know, but I’m guessing there’s a lot of give-and-take minutiae that goes into handling the collective egos of the best recruiting class ever, and Cal’s done a masterful job. Wall’s exceeded the hype, which just about everyone thought would be impossible. Cousins has dominated the interior in a way that nobody, not even the recruiting gurus and Calipari expected. Bledsoe’s been a little inconsistent at points, but considering his numbers and the fact that at one point in the season he was being talked about as a lottery pick, for a guy that wasn’t even a shoo-in to start, I think he’s done alright. Then there’s Patrick Patterson.
Much was made of what Patterson’s role would be on this year’s team. How he would fit into Calipari’s offense and coexist with DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall were both fair and frequent questions at the start of the season, and he’s given the best possible answer to both. Patterson transformed his game in a way that would’ve seemed impossible to anyone who’d just watched his first two seasons at Kentucky. He entered the season as a man who’d only attempted four 3-pointers in his entire career at Kentucky, and will leave it as a guy who’s made at least 22. Lots of people, myself incuded, complained about the way Patterson was used sometimes this season, but the bottom line is it worked. Moving Patterson to the perimeter opened the paint up for Cousins, who, with all respect to Patterson, did more with it than he ever could. And it wasn’t like Patterson’s placement further from the basket resembled the appearance of a fish out of water. Quite the opposite, actually. Patterson looked comfortable shooting the three, and by season’s end was/is probably Kentucky’s second or third-most reliable threat from deep. I’d rather see him taking one than Wall or Bledsoe. And Cal deserves some credit for this as well. He structured the offense in such a way that it played to Patterson’s permiter strenghts, allowing him lots of catch-and-shoot opportunities without forcing him to handle the ball more than he was equipped to.
Put it like this, Tubby couldn’t handle anything more than role players, and Billy Gillispie couldn’t even handle them. Calipari found a way to get three lottery picks to buy into a system that forced them to share the ball and, in Patterson’s case – who, we should be reminded, was the best player on Kentucky’s team each of the last two seasons – completely change his game. Say all you want about the way he recruits, but what he did with this year’s Kentucky team ought to earn him several Coach of the Year awards. And it’s a shame he won’t.
The Kentucky fans said goodbye to Perry Stevenson, Ramon Harris, and Mark Krebbs on Sunday. Two of them (Stevenson and Harris) being the final two Tubby Smith recruits, and Krebbs being a transfer from the start of the Billy Gillispie regime. Obviously, people get emotional when any Kentucky player graduates. Fans get attached to their players at any school, and the rabid nature of Kentucky Basketball only amplifies that in Lexington. Stevenson and Harris both had moments in their careers that they should be proud of, and Krebbs should be commended for the lengths he went to to live out his dreams of playing at UK. But, and I know this is going to sound awful, but am I the only person who saw this as the second stage (the first being Cal giving Galloway and Pilgrim the boot in the off-season), of the ushering-out of the Tubby-Gillispie-era Wildcats, AKA The Dark Ages? Nothing against any of those guys, but could you imagine Calipari (or any bigtime coach, for that matter) giving them a second look as recruits on his team? Of course not. Again, I want to make it clear that I like all three of those guys and say I appreciate their time in Lexington, but we were never going to win any National Titles building around players like Perry Stevenson and Ramon Harris. I don’t think it’s wrong to say that one day in the not too distant future, we’ll look back on some of these recruiting classes under Tubby and Billy G and just shake our heads and ask, What were they thinking? And for anyone who thinks that sounds crass, sorry. It’s true.