The question on everyone's mind this past week, including Kentucky head coach John Calipari, is how the 'Cats would respond to their 68-62 setback at the hands of the South Carolina Gamecocks on Tuesday night. The first loss of the season is always a bummer, but compounding the Big Blue angst was the fact that UK's initial loss of the season came against a team the 'Cats were so clearly superior to. Other than Devan Downey, one would be hard-pressed to find a current Gamecock who would play meaningful minutes for this edition of the Kentucky Wildcats. Afterall, this is a South Carolina team that unexpectedly lost its two leading rebounders from last season (Dominique Archie, Mike Holmes), one to injury, the other to dismissal, rendering the Gamecocks ineffective in the paint, and overly reliant on the talents of point guard Devan Downey.
None of that mattered last Tuesday night, though, as the 'Cats proceeded to throw away the No. 1 ranking, which they had worked so hard to attain. It's actually an interesting dichotomy, often found in the workplace -- An employee works his/her fingers to the bone in order to get a promotion, and once attained, they get lazy. One might say, contented and lazy. And that's exactly how UK played in their game with South Carolina ... contented and lazy.
But to 'Cat fans, the loss to Carolina shouldn't have come as a surprise, or even unwelcome. It was simply the inevitable consequence of a young, yet extremely talented team, who had been carrying the look of complacency around with them for several games. Recently, only in the 'Cats' game versus Arkansas, where they were playing for the No. 1 ranking, has the team seemed focused and intent on thoroughly eviscerating their opponent. More often than not, the 'Cats had been "playing down" to their competition. A dangerous game to play when parity in college basketball is at an all-time high; Every team has good players, VMI, Gardner-Webb and a host of other less celebrated teams have painfully driven that point home to the 'Cats over the last few years. Add into the mix the great equalizer, the three-point shot, and nearly everyone on UK's schedule is capable of beating the 'Cats. But, unaware of the danger is how the 'Cats continued to perform.
Some might use the terms over-confident, or even arrogant, to describe the mind-set of the Kentucky basketball team prior to the Carolina loss, but I'll toss another adjective into the fray ... understandable. The composition of the 2009-2010 Wildcat basketball team almost dictates, due to their youth and the early success the team has enjoyed, an eventual delving into the "wonder of me" mentality. Luckily for this squad, complacent play caught up with them before the start of the season that matters most ... March Madness.
Responding With Vigor
The truest test of this kitten club hasn't been North Carolina, UConn, Louisville, or the two-three zone, but rather, it was how the 'Cats would respond to the SC loss. Would they feel sorry for themselves, blaming the loss on the clutch play of Devan Downey, or the rowdy road environment they confronted? Or would they display the effort, intensity, and team work that has propelled them to heights never before seen by a team with three freshmen starters? Were we to feel sorry for Vanderbilt for what was about to happen to the 'Dores, or fear how they would punish the potentially fragile 'Cats?
The answers were quickly found on Saturday afternoon -- Inside the first eight minutes of the game, UK built a 23-11 lead, and had the look of a team worthy of being called a juggernaut. Building the first half lead to as many as 19-points, the 'Cats cruised into the locker-room up 49-34. "Now, that's more like it," was the exclamation heard throughout the Commonwealth as the first half came to a close.
But, aah, hasn't the second half been home to many Big Blue meltdowns over the last few months? The killer instinct, so often lamented by many as missing within the DNA of these 'Cats, might lag behind in the locker-room, especially if these 'Cats become too pleased with their performance. And admittedly, pleased they should have been.
The second half, though, brought more of the same. The 'Cats continued to force their collective will on the Commodores, pausing only briefly (at the 7:46 mark), when Vandy came within 11 perilous points. But thanks to one underused 'Cat (until Saturday), and one little used 'Cat, UK repelled the uprising in immediate, and some might say, ironic fashion -- After a missed jumper by John Wall, DeAndre Liggins grabbed the offensive rebound, restarting the UK possession. This led to a Darnell Dodson missed trey, this time the offensive board was corralled by Perry Stevenson, eventually leading to a Dodson made three, sending the lead back to 14 -- Two Kentucky offensive rebounds in the span of a few seconds. This, after South Carolina snagged a spirit-breaking 20 offensive boards (an unacceptable 47.6% rebounding rate) in their Tuesday beat-down of the 'Cats. This, after the undersized Gamecocks thoroughly defeated the much bigger 'Cats on the glass, winning the overall rebounding battle in Columbia, 44-40. This, after the Darren Horn's depleted squad whipped the 'Cats 22-9 in second chance points.
The seismic shift in the 'Cats' attitude, and therefore results, is apparent when one compares the statistics from the Carolina and Vandy games -- At SC, UK gathered in 26 defensive rebounds on 50 (42 floor shots, 8 free throws) missed Gamecock shots (a 52.0% rate); versus Vandy, UK grabbed 23 defensive rebounds on 32 (24 floor shots, 8 free throws) missed Commodore shots (a 71.8% rate) ... SC snagged the aforementioned 20 offensive rebounds on 42 missed floor shots; Vanderbilt was lucky enough to corral three offensive boards on 24 missed floor shots (a 12.5% rate) ... Vandy had 22 total rebounds for the game, a number UK nearly matched by grabbing 18 offensive boards (a 60.0% rate) ... UK held a 20-2 advantage in second chance points in their game with Vanderbilt, reversing (and then some) the 13-point deficit they sported in the Carolina game.
Two different ball clubs played against South Carolina and Vanderbilt last week. One, the precocious teen-led, over-hyped, collection of well-fed felines, the other, a hungry, angry, supremely focused group of Wildcats.
Effort, intensity, focus, being of one mind, team work ... the descriptives are endless for what it takes for a team to compete and win at the highest level of college basketball ... young is not one of them. And that is exactly what this team is. So young in fact, they are apt to believe the celebratory pulp fiction pumped into their brains via the sports pages. So young in fact, they are apt to believe the back slaps, and "atta boys" they receive on a daily basis from their fellow students. So young in fact, they think they are invincible. If they didn't think that way, they wouldn't be human, and they wouldn't be young.
Now though, the lesson has been taught, and based on Saturday's performance, well learned. But, there are still many games remaining in the season (hopefully 19), and UK's newfound focus will be tested each and every time they put on the uniform. Will they now match their opponents' intensity? Will they now play with one goal? Will they shed the mistakes of youth forever? The future surely holds the answers, but ...
My best guess is that this team has taken a step. A step that must be taken in order to challenge the other elite teams for college basketball supremacy. An unpleasant step, for sure, but a step toward athletic and mental maturity. They now know they can lose, and most importantly, they now know what it feels like to lose. If they take that empty feeling of unexpected defeat, and keep it with them as a reminder of the consequences of youthful arrogance, the ceiling on this team is rendered invisible without an electron microscope. They have the physical talent, the coaching, and the support to soar through the clouds on their way to Indianapolis ... if their youth isn't wasted on the young.
Dicky Lyons, Jr. Supporting Haiti
I received this email from Dicky:
The Child Care Council of Kentucky has teamed up with myself and Hands-On to try and get help to Haiti. We will be selling tee-shirts, with all the proceeds going to Haiti. Also, for every shirt you buy, we will send one to a child in Haiti, along with the donation. The people of Haiti need our help, even if it is just a shirt with a small message of hope.
Dicky is also moving to Spokane, Washington to play Arena League football. Here's hoping Dicky has great success doing what it is he loves to do the most.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!