Every year, there's a new whipping boy. Sometimes, as in the case of Josh Carrier, someone gets the honor of carrying over the distinction from year to year. Lucky guy.
The how or why a certain player gets tagged as whipping boy is a little shadier. On one level, it's about performance (or the lack thereof). But as several mediocre to terrible players in recent years prove, it's not always about production.
While Lukasz Obrzut may clomp around like a Frankenstein, his max effort seemed to ultimately endear him to Cats fans young and old. Similarly, the departed Shagari Alleyne, whose inability to dunk consistently at 7'3" may be the most challenging problem the dudes at Mythbusters would ever face, managed to be thought effective despite his obvious terribleness.
Sometimes, performance has nothing at all to do with why the UK fans single a player out for dirision. Take the case of Saul Smith, who is probably, in hindsight, better than Ramel Bradley has been, and yet was maligned his entire career simply for being his Dad's son. Similarly, there are people who hated Antowain Barbour for being inconsistent and not living up to his billing, but were fine with Patrick Sparks, despite the fact that it could be argued he lost games as much as he won them.
There were many scapegoats during last season's debacle. The fans managed to toss Sparks, Brandon Stockton and ultimately even Rajon Rondo -- the leading scorer, rebounder and assists man -- under the bus. But those guys are all gone now, and the whipping boy is undoubtedly senior French-Canadian Sheray Thomas.
Thomas has apparently earned his status as whipping boy with a career full of mediocrity. It's not just about the career averages of around 2 points and 2 rebounds. It's about representing what fans feel is a whole four-man class of substandard players. Woo gets credit for goofiness, Bobby Perry for ... I'm not sure what, but I guess having had at least a few decent games. But Thomas has never had a signature game. He's reached double figures a few times, sure. But there's never been a single game where fans can look back and say, "Without Sheray, we never would have gotten that done." And if there was one, it was, typically, forgettable.
But this isn't a diatribe about why it's fair to hate on Sheray. I tend towards the positive when it comes to UK players, remembering that while they get to do something every man, and many women, watching Kentucky play would give a few digits to do, they also work hard and don't get paid (other than a scholarship). There is certainly something like schadenfreude working here, too, some sense that he isn't taking advantage of an opportunity we might want ourselves.
Still, why is it that the Kentucky fanbase must always have someone to whine about? What is it that makes the Big Blue Nation a nation of complainers? It sure isn't very becoming, and it's made the group suffer from the transgressions of the few.
There was a time when Kentucky fans were known as "difficult but knowledgeable." Anymore, the references tend toward "unreasonable" or "overly demanding." And while I could take offfense at those stances, given that UK's basketball program is the winningest in history and is in the midst of a frustrating stretch not seen in decades by a non-probation team, such monikers look increasingly apt.
But while Sheray is not a great player, it's true, the idea that he is single-handedly responsible for (a) the lousy recruiting class he is in or (b) the play of the team as a whole is ludicrous. Thomas may not dunk the ball much, score or even look like he's hustling, but he's clearly doing something his coach values above all -- playing help defense in the ball-line set. It's not pretty or glamorous, but it's essential, and without it, you get 15-point losses to teams that have more offensive firepower than yours. UK has had one this year, to Memphis, and Tubby clearly would like to avoid a repeat of last season. Hence the unglamorous but necessary focus on defense, and on players like Sheray.
This weekend, Kentucky's stable of "boring" and "overrated" and "terrible" and "midmajor" players -- according to the anonymous message board posters of the world -- will face powerhouse and loaded North Carolina at the Dean Dome. While on paper it looks like Sheray and his mates will lose by 15 or more, there's no way to know that for sure. Last year, a freshmen-led bunch of rebuilding year players for Carolina shocked UK and sent a message that they were not going to be labelled without a say so. Similarly, this year's Kentucky team is still finding its identity. Maybe that will happen Saturday. There is always that chance.
Is it possible that Kentucky will have another disappointing season? Sure, it is. There are holes in the roster and flaws in the players, just like any team that isn't one for the ages. But don't think for a second that picking a single player out to trash repeatedly, however anonymously and however ephemeral it may seem on some Internet web site, will make things change. It may make you feel better about your pathetic non-playing for Kentucky existence, but it won't improve Sheray Thomas' play any more than it will make you look less like a petty human with nothing good to say about life.