Kentucky Basketball: We’re Back

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Alright, I’ve given it some time.  I’ve cooled off.  I’ve reflected.  I haven’t watched the game a second time, but it’s not like I need to.  There’s not a whole lot in the form of analysis that can be said about last night’s game against West Virginia that hasn’t already been said.  Basically, Kentucky picked a hell of a time to have their worst game of the season.  Their shooting was horrendous, their inability to get the ball inside to Cousins with any consistency was frustrating, and their defensive breakdowns, especially the ones on Mazzulla, were dumbfounding.  It was one of those Murphy’s Laws games; anything that could go wrong did go wrong.

But if we’re being completely honest with ourselves, it’s not like this kind of game was completely unforseeable.  Lots of people, including myself, were terrified when they saw that West Virginia was the two-seed in our bracket.  The reason: we can’t survive a stinker against those guys.  And once again, if we’re being completely honest, we’ve had plenty of stinkers this year.  Luckily for us, they mostly came against teams like Miami (OH), a Louisville team that’s down this season, Georgia, and Alabama.  Had we been playing in a conference where the gap in talent between the top schools and the rest isn’t as great, like the Big 12 or the Big East, I think there’s be some serious question marks in regard to whether or not we’d have put together a win-loss record that comes close to the one we did.  It really comes down to this: This team, as talented as they were, often played below their potential.  With the exception of Arkansas, the first game against Florida, the SEC-tourney game against Tennessee, ETSU, and Wake Forest, I can’t think of any games where we were able to keep it together for a full (or even for the majority of) 40 minutes.  This team had lots of bad tendencies: coming out of the gates flat; building a 15-point lead and taking their foot off the accelerator; settling for too many outside shots; too many turnovers; inconsistent production for the 3-spot; the belief that they could coast for 30 minutes then turn it on for the final ten and be alright; giving up too many open 3’s….all of these were tendencies this team fought all season long.  There were times – most notably after the Wake game – when it looked like we’d turned the corner on a lot of those problems.  But in the end, almost all of them, at one point or another, reared their ugly head in the West Virginia game.  We all knew going into this one that our C-game wouldn’t be enough, and it wasn’t.  Not even close.

Now, the attention shifts toward next season.  Who will stay and who will go?  From what I’ve read, Wall, Cousins, and Patterson are gone.  Good for them; they need to go.  The question marks are Bledsoe and Daniel Orton.  Bledsoe’s projected (at the moment) as a lottery pick, but I don’t expect it to stay that way.  Orton, I believe, is projected as a late first-rounder on most draft boards.

I will say this, if Bledsoe’s stock stays where it is (which, I’ve already said, I don’t think it will), it will be really tough for him not to go.  Even if he comes back and kills it next year, it’s hard to imagine him rising higher than the late lottery.  However, I expect his stock to take a bit of a dip after these last two tournament games.  If you remember, all this lottery talk involving Bledsoe’s happened exactly twice this year: after his 25-pointer against Florida in Gainesville, and after his eight-trey, 29-point performance against ETSU in the opening round of the tournament.  This gives me the sense that teams are really trying to talk themselves into this kid, because for anyone who has watched him play much this season, he doesn’t scream lottery pick.

Ditto for Daniel Orton.  He’s had flashes where he looks like a legit prospect, but he’s had plenty more that make him look like a raw talent that is, at this point, a bit timid and in serious need of another year or two of college ball.

(I’ll talk more about these two and the rest of Kentucky’s pro prospects in the coming weeks.)

But above all else, this game, as well as this season as a whole, should make us appreciate the transition from last season to this one.  It was almost exactly one year ago today that Billy Gillispie was fired and the program, along with being a national punchline, was in total disarray.  We were coming off our worst season in twenty years, our perceived savior had proven to be a fraud, our old coach was leading Minnesota to the NCAA Tournament, our other old coach was leading Louisville to the overall number one seed, and to top it off, the players were rumored to planning a mass exodus.

Two months later, we’d hired Calipari, signed the best recruiting class in history, and re-energized a fanbase that was in desparate need of some good news.

Say what you want about Calipari being a sleaze, but the guy has absolutely killed it since coming to UK.  While we now know that we won’t be hanging our 8th National Championship banner in Rupp this season, we can rest assured that we’ve reclaimed our spot atop the national landscape.  Calipari, through myriad ways that make even this 4,000-worder seem dated, has made Lexington the capital of college basketball again.  And don’t think the rest of the country hasn’t taken notice.  In one year, Calipari’s turned an NIT team into the most-talented in the country.  LeBron James, Drake, Magic Johnson, and Mike Tomlin are wearing Kentucky blue in Rupp Arena.  Kentucky’s leading SportsCenter every night.  John Wall, Patrick Patterson, and DeMarcus Cousins each graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at some point this season.  And it’s looking more and more like  Brandon Knight, the best high school player in the country, will be playing in Lexington next season.

Make no mistake about it, regardless of what happened against West Virginia last night, The Roman Empire is back.  And that, my friends, is no small consolation prize.

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