Thoughts After Bye

image from Louisville Courier-Journal

Greetings, readers. It has been too long. Hopefully we here at LexPats are going to get to writing more often on the blog again, especially with everyone’s favorite time of year coming up: Kentucky Basketball Season. Until then, however, here are some thoughts midway through UK’s extremely disappointing and Randall Cobb-less football season.

    • The Kentucky football team is not very good. It’s not just one player, it’s not just one coach; collectively, we are just painful to watch. Every week there seems to be a more limited number of clips you can pull from a UK game and say “Hey, that was a nice play.” This is a bit frustrating considering how long Joker has been around and how much he has invested in this program. You would think some positive results would have come of his tenure by now, especially during his second season as Coach #1.
    • Lack of positive results notwithstanding, Joker deserves one more year. I certainly thought that before the South Carolina drubbing, but it’s a little harder to admit after that poor, poor effort two weeks ago. But you’ve got to remember Rich Brooks. He didn’t have a winning record until his fourth year; the most games he won in a season before that is four. I understand Brooks’ challenge — to completely change the course of the ship – was more difficult, while Joker’s – to keep the ship, at the very least, riding the waves Brooks stirred up – is seemingly less difficult since he at least has some sort of legitimate foundation to build on, a foundation he helped solidify at that. But I still believe you have to give him one more year, no matter if we lose all our remaining games. We UK football fans have short memories. You would think we’ve been on top of the college football world for 50 years.
    • Morgan Newton has underwhelmed thus far at the quarterback position. He has not built off of the success he had in what little playing time he saw last year. He rarely seems to find the open receiver (and when he does the majority of his passes are inaccurate), he takes too long to hand the ball off on running plays, and he looks uncomfortable in the pocket. The one thing he has going for him is that he is fairly mobile and can occasionally pick up a first down by running it himself. Of course, Morgan Newton’s faults can partially be blamed on inadequate receiver play and a porous offensive line. But as QB, most of the blame has to fall on Newton. He has got to be the indisputable leader on the field; as QB he has to have the ability to “rally the troops” with his words, play, and attitude. He has yet to show he possesses that ability.
    • Am I the only one who wonders how much influence Joker really has in the locker room? Or how much control he has over the team? I just don’t see him behind the scenes giving rousing halftime speeches or laying down the law if players are goofing off. Is the team undisciplined on the field because it’s undisciplined off it? When I hear Joker give press conferences or talk to the media, he comes off as too soft spoken and even bumbling, almost like he has no idea what to say. Maybe he just hates talking to the media or maybe he’s just nervous. I would almost compare him to Marvin Lewis in this regard. Examples of coaches I can definitely see influencing the attitude and culture of their team for the better: Mike Tomlin, Steve Spurrier (hate to admit it), Les Miles, Eric Taylor (Friday Night Lights). Of course, loud isn’t always better (see: Herm Edwards) and all coaches have their own style, this is just something that’s been on my mind. Ultimately, I do think Joker is a decent head coach with a lot to prove.
    • I don’t think being a “true fan” of a team means you have to watch every second of every game, especially when your team is playing like crap. I’m not sure I’ll watch another full game the rest of the season unless the Cats start to show some improvement. These games are sometimes 3.5 hours long, and with the way we’ve been playing, watching them can feel like a waste of time. But I’m still a fan. Of course, if you actually go to the game you can drink to make it a little more bearable. Well, I guess you can do that at home or at a bar too (obviously). Better start early this Saturday. Game’s at noon.




Rick Reilly is still a tool, but…

I'm smiling because they put me next to Bill Simmons on ESPN's front page.

…credit must be given where credit is do. He must know how many people think he’s a terrible sportswriter (or has at least turned into one) and he’s trying to up his fanbase by getting on the good side of one of the biggest fanbases in all of sports. Come to think of it, actually, where was the pre-game version of this column when the Cinderella hype-machine of the media was jumping on the Big Red bandwagon? It’s easy to write something like this after the fact, buddy. But alas…

Kentucky schools Cornell

President Obama sets phone date with Wildcats

President Barack Obama will speak with John Calipari and the University of Kentucky basketball team today to show his thanks for their recent fundraising efforts.  UK raised $525,000 in funds in its “Hoops for Haiti” telethon in order to help the earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. With $500,000 in matching funds, UK raised more than $1 million.

The conversation is scheduled for today at 1:30, and media will be present for the call. So, if I’m a reporter in that room, there’s only one question on my mind:  Mr. President, given your background and sensible nature, why the fuck do you always wear pants when you’re hooping?  The people have a right to know.

UK Rises to #2 in the Polls

Thanks to Tennessee’s victory Sunday afternoon, college basketball has a No. 1 team that’s not the Kansas Jayhawks for the first time all season.  The Longhorns of Texas now have the stranglehold on the top spot, receiving 30-of-31 first place votes (Kentucky being the only other team to get a first place tally).  UK, the only other unbeaten left in college basketball, comes in at No. 2, followed by Kansas at three, Villanova at the four spot, with the Orangemen from Syracuse, NY rounding out the top five.

This was something of an insane week for college basketball’s top ten: Purdue, Duke, West Virginia, North Carolina and Kansas State all lost (the first of the season for both the Boilermakers and the Blue Devils), while schools like Georgetown (who beat UConn) and Tennessee (who beat Kansas, despite dismissing their best player and suspending three others) were both able to pick up huge victories.

Here’s the complete poll, if you’re interested.

Sunday Evening Links — Then There Were Two

BREAKING NEWS: Tennessee just beat Kansas. What I saw of the game was physical as hell and fun to watch. Plus, it had a good storyline. And so two unbeatens remain: Texas and Kentucky.

Tennessee beats Kansas

LHL: Dykes likes UK

LHL: Cal impressed with Liggins

LHL: Cal doesn’t want Cats to settle

SI: Kentucky holds off Georgia

The State Journal: Cats still have work to do

LCJ: Cousins’ one constant state: Great Player

Larry Vaught: Liggins saves UK’s unbeaten season

SI: Rondo gets triple-double against Raptors

Stay tuned this week for more thoughts on SEC Basketball.

Why I Still Like Rick Pitino

Yes, I’m one of those guys.  During UK’s coaching searches of recent years, I was one of the fans who wouldn’t have minded if Pitino wrote his own prodigal son story and came back to coach the boys in blue. (I wonder who would be the savior and who would be the lost son in this situation.  Would we be returning to Pitino or would he be returning to us?) When I would voice this opinion the replies for the most part went a little something like this: “That would NEVER happen.  Not even a chance.”  That is probably true.  But it’s interesting to note that rarely, if ever, did someone retort with, “I don’t want that traitor back.”

When it comes to liking Pitino I know I’m in the minority.  For most Kentucky fans the end-all-be-all of what Pitino is is a traitor, and I understand why people think that.  I’ll even admit that, technically, it’s true.  Pitino left Kentucky for a stint with the Celtics which ended in colossal failure, only to return to the only school that Kentucky fans hate with a more ferocious passion than even Duke and North Carolina.  (For the record, I hate Louisville too, though maybe not as much as Duke.  But this post is not about the Louisville Cardinals.)  Technically, that is what a traitor is.  But I don’t hate, or even really dislike, him for it.  I hate the team he coaches, filled with overrated player-babies like Edgar Sosa, but I still like Rick Pitino.  And liking him is not something that I actively try to do, it’s just something that is.

One of the reasons I still like Pitino is because during his coaching tenure at UK he built Kentucky into what now represents a large part of my childhood.  In my inaugural post for Lexpatriates I mentioned that Pitino had legendary teams in 90s. Check out this list of names; even those players who didn’t get much playing time but were fan favorites still seem to have this aura around their name:

Jamal Mashburn
Jeff Brassow
John Pelphrey
Deron Feldhaus
Richie Farmer
Sean Woods
Dale Brown
Gimel Martinez
Travis Ford
Andre Riddick
Chris Harrison
Rodrick Rhodes
Jared Prickett
Tony Delk
Walter McCarty
Jeff Sheppard
Anthony Epps
Mark Pope
Antoine Walker
Scott Padgett
Allen Edwards
Cameron Mills
Derek Anderson
Ron Mercer
Wayne Turner
Nazr Mohammed
Jamaal Magloire
Steve Masiello
Heshimu Evans

All of these guys played at least one year on Pitino teams. Some of them are among the biggest names surrounding the tradition of UK basketball. Some of them went on to have lucrative NBA careers. And Rick Pitino was the architect of these teams, the molder of these players, and at the collegiate level nobody has done it better. Honestly, the names on this list comprise what Kentucky Basketball Tradition means to me. When I hear people talk about the program’s storied tradition, I don’t first think of names like Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Dan Issel, Jack Givens, or Kyle Macy; I think of names like Jamal Mashburn, Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, Sean Woods, Tony Delk (to name just a few players)…and I think of Rick Pitino.  Because I was alive to see these guys perform, it means more to me, and doubly so because I was still a kid.  To me Rick Pitino was the untouchable leader of the most exciting program in all of sports.  I used to listen to his call-in show, live from Bravo Pitino, with my dad, and hang on every word.  I noticed a swagger, a confidence in his words, even then, one that he quite obviously still has today even in the midst of tough personal circumstances.

When Rick Pitino took over as head coach at UK, the program was in dire straits, having been put on probation for “illegal things” that happened during the Eddie Sutton years.  I don’t remember much about the probation:  I was an innocent young child who just wanted to watch basketball; I didn’t care what was going on behind the scenes, nor would have have really understood what was going on if I’d known.  But looking back now and seeing how Pitino resurrected Kentucky under what was sure to have been much pressure and scrutiny, and with the world watching, I’m not sure Kentucky basketball would be what it is today without him, nor would it mean as much to my generation.  Some will say, “Well, eventually some other coach would have came along and put us back on top.”  Maybe.  But it’s truly hard to imagine any other coach doing that to such an extent that it produced Pitino-like results.  Whether fans admit it or not, Kentucky’s return to dominance in the 90s has formed what we have come to expect from Kentucky basketball every season since Pitino’s departure.

I think the only reason we grew to loathe Tubby Ball was because his stlye of play was so diametrically opposite Pitino’s. (This article touches on that theory somewhat.)  Tubby didn’t implement any kind of fast-paced offense or consistently relentless full-court pressure defense that made games so exciting to watch.  Subconsciously, or maybe just flat out, fans wanted Pitino back, or at least his stlye of play.  Gilispie’s style resembled Tubby’s more than Pitino’s and that was one reason (among others) that he got ran out of town.  Now we have a coach who is similar to Pitino in more ways than one can count, including style of play, and he is loved by all, deemed as the savior of Kentucky basketball fans have dreamed of and waxed prophetic about ever since Pitino left.

When Pitino returned to the college ranks and threw his chips in with the Cards, I’ll admit to being shocked and even pretty pissed off.  When Pitino made the announcement it was hard not to get caught up in the hoopla and jump on the Pitino-hating bandwagon.  How could he take the job at our rival school?  I was certainly on that bandwagon for a while but quickly jumped off when I realized that, even when seeing Pitino walking up and down the floor in front of the Louisville bench, I could still only think of what he did for Kentucky in the first seven years of a decade that shaped how much Kentucky basketball would mean to me.  It was when Pitino was coaching that I remember praying for the Cats the make it to the Final Four again because it made everybody so happy; and then the years we made it to the Final Four: “God, let us just win the National Championship one more time so everybody will get excited and be in a good mood until next season.”  It was Rick Pitino with the assist the years those prayers were answered.

The game this Saturday is going to be fun to watch.  Calipari is in the right spirit when he says the game isn’t about the coaches, it’s about the players; this particular game, however, to the fans anyway, is just as much about the coaches.  It’s a clash of the titans.  The history between the two giants has been well-documented. One of the most interesting statements Pitino has made regarding his time at Kentucky he spoke to John Calipari when Cal called him before accepting the UK job.  Calipari asked Pitino the same question he asked the other former coaches: “I’m thinking of taking this job.  What do you think?”  Pitino said, “To me [Kentucky] was Camelot.  I coached there for eight years and never had a bad day on the job.”  To call that a ringing endorsement would be a massive understatement.  But what stikes me about Pitino’s words is they show that he really enjoyed his time coaching here and having the support of a fanbase unlike any other in the nation.  Not ONE bad day?  Camelot?  That says a lot about Kentucky basketball, and says a lot about Pitino’s feelings about UK even all these years later; he probably still wishes he’d never left, no matter what he says.  I still like Pitino, but I’m obviously going to be rooting for the Cats this Saturday.  I’m going to be rooting for them to beat the life out of the Cards and cook them over an open flame for supper.  Louisville will always be Louisville.

On a side note about the game: there will obviously be signs at the game, no matter what Cal’s request, but I’m really hoping they don’t cross the line (I have my doubts).  It’s a funny world we live in where being famous breeds having details about your personal life made embarrassingly public so that people who don’t know you can chide you to make themselves feel better, saying, “At least I’m not that bad!” (see: Tiger Woods).  But a basketball game is no place to beat the dead horse of Pitino’s personal failures.  I did just spend several paragraphs defending why I like the guy, but even if I hated him I would be saying the same thing.  Keep it classy, Lexington.