UK Basketball: Awaiting the "Kentucky Way"

Go here or scroll down for Glenn's always outstanding UK versus Alabama postmortem.

For as long as I can remember (which really isn't that long ago) I have heard commentators and coaches loudly espouse in a medley ways -- It's tough to win on the road in conference.  Some variation of that phrase has been uttered millions of times over the life of modern day college basketball.  Uttered so often, because it is as righteous as the sun set.  So then, why is it so hard for some college basketball teams to grasp the concept? 

Searching, scouring the earth for the answer to that question is what robs many coaches of a once healthy hairline, and contributes to the sky rocketing sales of Tums, Rolaids, and Jim Beam.  And if one happens to coach a team sated with youth and road game inexperience, it can lead to embarrassing images broadcast worldwide of some coaches (rightfully, from where I sat) verbally blasting into a fine powder one of the star players on the team for failing to grasp the reality.  The reality that, on the road, mistakes are amplified; on the road, lackadaisical "efforting" of 50/50 balls is unacceptable; on the road, the game-plan must be executed, or the executioner will draw a bead on the teams chances of winning the league; on the road, expect the opponent to play out of their minds.  But aah, most importantly -- On the road, if the dark jersey announces "Kentucky" is in the house, the road warriors would be well served to remember the game is 40 minutes long, so pack a lunch, pack a punch, and prepare to battle.

That has been the "Kentucky Way" since the Baron of the Bluegrass was running his teams through drills in Alumni Gym 65 years ago (and folks, if the "Kentucky Way" were only a figment of my imagination, Kentucky would not be Kentucky).  For UK, and all that those two consecutive letters implies, has been fighting the road battle, and more often than not, winning the road battle, because the players wearing the jersey understood that life on the road was the time to bow the back and prepare to fight.  Yes, fight!  Not play scared or timid, but play aggressively and with vigor for 40 minutes.

As Kentucky discovered Tuesday night in their 68-66 loss to Alabama, the road is not the place to "turn it on" after 25 minutes of sketchy offense, and indifferent defense.  Fifteen minutes of outstanding effort and (mostly) excellent execution will get a team one thing: An "L," even when playing an opponent blessed with less God-given ability.  And because of that, the mantra this Kentucky team needs to memorize goes thusly: When traveling, all opponents have more ability.  When traveling, all opponents possess more than enough desire needed to win.  When traveling, all opponents are propelled to play beyond their lot.  When traveling, all opponents would rather take a beating than lose to UK. 

Enter a road game knowing this, and losing suddenly becomes something that is much less likely to happen.  Certainly much less than 100%, which is the percentage of times UK has lost on the road in the SEC so far this season.

Sure, we can talk about wide-open missed three-pointers (of which there were many Tuesday night), missed free throws (of which there were many), missed defensive assignments (of which there were many), selfishness (uh, JCal covered that one quite adequately), and defensive rebounding (which was pathetic in the first half), but the reality is, all of those ailments are merely symptoms of this team not matching the opponents intensity. 

And that, my friends, is a function of youth, more pointedly, leaderless youth.  Which leads me to believe; it is quite obvious this team has no on-the-floor leadership.  For games like the Georgia loss, the Alabama loss; those are the games where leaders come clawing to the front of the line and impose their will on their teammates.  Can anyone imagine Winston Bennett, or Kenny Walker, or Mike Casey, or Patrick Patterson allowing talented teammates to play with half-hearted effort and execution for 25 minutes of any game, much less in a game UK is being roundly and soundly defeated, as they were Tuesday night in Tuscaloosa.

This team needs someone to grab a jersey, someone to rally around, someone to man up and become the beast no one wants to look in the eye for fear their head might explode.  Drastic?  I suppose so, but this team simply has too much talent to allow (road) losses to pile one on top of another. 

Simply put, this Kentucky squad desperately requires someone to educate them on the long-standing "Kentucky Way."  Obviously, John Calipari relates to his charges the need for road focus and intensity, but sometimes it takes a fellow player, a teammate, to convince those with less pliable noggins about the ways and means of life on the road.  A player hears the same thing, over and over from the head coach, and oftentimes the eyes glaze, and the head nods as if saying, "Alright coach, I hear you."  When in reality, the player is thinking, "Will this cat ever shut up?"  But, hear the same directives from a teammate, a respected teammate, and sometimes clarity is achieved.  That my friends, is what this team lacks ... well that, and another 6-10 behemoth with mad skills.

Can a team so full of freshmen-based talented win on the big stage?  That is the question which has been posed throughout the college basketball world since Calipari blew up the recruiting circuit in 2009-2010.  And the justification for that question was in full living color on ESPN last night from Alabama.  Last year, the team had an unusually mature freshman leader in John Wall, aided and abetted by the personality of junior Patrick Patterson to lean on for leadership.  This season, as the freshman beat goes on, we await the leader of men.

And with three of the next four UK contests being on the road, the time is drawing near.  The path to the "Kentucky Way" is out there, somewhere, waiting to be discovered.

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!

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