UK Basketball: Ever-Changing Expectations

Harken back, if you will, to March of 2009.  Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart and UK President Lee Todd had just executed the much-anticipated termination of Billy Gillispie, a move both condoned and condemned around the blogosphere and newspapers covering the 'Cats.  It was a decision some thought would harm the Kentucky basketball program, more than it would help.  Count me among the opinion-givers who shouted down the firing as short-sighted and uncalled for, especially considering Gillispie inherited a roster short on talent, particularly at the all-important point guard spot.  And only two years? ... It didn't seem to me that 24 months was enough of a chance to give a coach with an, albeit short, but impressive track record of rebuilding downtrodden programs.

But Gillispie, who famously refused to glad-hand donors and long-time supporters of the program, said on more than one occasion that he just wanted to coach, not parade around as a rock star.  Count me among those who opined; Because a coach chooses to not play ball with the well-heeled dollar bill donors to the program, well, that's no reason to fire the guy.  Count me among those who stated that if Gillispie were fired, Barnhart better have a bases clearing hire at the ready, or his neck was to be fitted next for the chopping block.

My opinion was in the minority, but I was far from lonely.  And once again, Big Blue Nation was in turmoil: The fan-base was split (although not evenly), the future was unclear, the mood was dark.  "Will this ever end" was the oft-heard lamentation heard throughout the Commonwealth.  Afterall, coming on the heels of Tubby Smith's final, angst-ridden year on the UK sidelines, and his decision to travel north to Minnesota, 'Cat fans had experienced more than their share of controversy, media condemnation, and infighting.

So now, after all the unpleasantness UK and UK fans endured, and with the Gillispie saga unhappily playing out in hi-def around the nation, palpable was the tension, non-existent were expectations.  Leaving the question; Would Kentucky basketball ever leave behind the heat of round-ball hell?

Then, almost magically, the hiring of John Calipari pushed the clouds back into the heavens, clearing a path for the sunshine Kentucky basketball had become accustomed to basking in over the life of its over 100-year old program. 

Almost immediately, the question became, "How long will it take Calipari" to bring UK back from the depths of mediocrity?  Lending credence to the "How long ..." question was a fact not lost on Kentucky fans: Coaching changes almost always bring with it changes in personnel, and the change from Gillispie to Calipari would surely be no different: Knowing players leave, and recruits waver, resulted in uncertainty ruling the Big Blue airwaves.  In this instance, airwaves congested with Kentucky fans playing out national title "dreamscapes," and conversely, doomsday scenarios.  For with him, Calipari brought a reputation of challenging for the best players in the country.  And considering Calipari wildly succeeded at UMass and Memphis, two strong basketball programs, but no UK they, most Kentucky fans thought the Pennsylvania native would bring to the Bluegrass a level of talent not seen in a decade.  But at the same time, fans were overly concerned, and rightfully so, about the immediate future.  A future potentially absent Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson.  And what would recruits Jon Hood and Daniel Orton decide to do, now that Gillispie was gone?

Optimism was certainly the prevailing feeling among many UK fans, but cautious optimism was exercised by most.  

Then, like manna from heaven, Patrick Patterson decided to stay in school, and high school phenoms John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, as well as JUCO stud Darnell Dodson, all opted to ply their trade in Lexington.  And for those who closely follow the best high school players in the country, "cautious" was dropped from the phrase "cautious optimism" ... replaced by "unbridled."  Add Orton and Hood to the thoroughbreds already safely in the barn, and Kentucky fans were inconsolably giddy.

In a matter of weeks, expectations for the near future of the Kentucky basketball program progressed from dismal, to cautiously optimistic, to downright excitement about the 2009-2010 season.  The point of pointing this out ... expectations, especially in today's college basketball, are an exercise in fluidity.

More pointedly, expectations within the University of Kentucky basketball program, as long as John Calipari is the head coach, will continue to be ever-changing.  When a coach relies on freshmen to become major contributors, instead of returning players being the source of minutes, points, and rebounds, the level of talent wearing the blue and white will be a point of contention and much discussion, at least until we've all had the opportunity to watch the youngsters play minutes that matter.  Afterall, who among us Big Blue faithful, with all of our supposed collective basketball I.Q., thought DeMarcus Cousins, almost overnight, would become the man among boys he morphed into?  Who among us thought Daniel Orton would be on the verge of becoming a lottery pick after his initial year?  Who among us thought Eric Bledsoe would be on the verge of becoming a lottery pick after his initial year?  Who among us, prior to the start of last season, could fathom the disappointment felt after UK's loss in the 2010 Elite Eight? 

Who among us, in the darkest days of the Gillispie regime, thought within 13-months, we would be having the conversations we are now having about Kentucky basketball?  Who among us forecasted such a violently turning tide?  Who among us envisioned Kentucky's facts of life changing so drastically?  

And the new and improved facts of life for Kentucky basketball fans are; As long as John Calipari continues to win with freshmen, freshmen will continue to be the apple of the Association's eye.  Resulting in Kentucky freshmen jumping the amateur ship, as plush as it might be, for the promise of riches in the pay for play league.  So round and round we will go ... Who will Cal sign?... How good are they?... Will they stay? ... Will they leave? ... will continue to be the dutiful questions asked by those who care about basketball in the Bluegrass. 

So my advice to Kentucky fans: Embrace change.  Embrace the fact that Calipari will continue to chase the most sought-after talent available to him.  Embrace the fact that year-by-year, as long as UK is successful on the floor with fresh-faced freshmen, those same freshmen will be heavily courted by the Association.  Embrace the fact that Kentucky has finally entered the same recruiting realm as North Carolina.  Something many have screamed for, for at least six or seven years.  All the recruiting collapses, all the strikeouts, all the hamburger boys choosing UNC, Georgia Tech, Duke, Florida, and UConn over the 'Cats, all that is now changed.  We now have what we've wished for.

Embrace it and hold it dear, because ever-changing expectations are far superior to having no expectations.  On that we can all agree.

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!

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