"Beware the secrets of synchronicity." -- The Secrets of Synchronicity by Jonathan Fast
Last year, the Kentucky Wildcats headed into Columbia, South Carolina undefeated, but not unchallenged. They had several close brushes with defeat at the hands of lesser foes, but somehow managed to crawl out on top. But the South Carolina Gamecocks had been problematic in 2008, knocking a #24 ranked Kentucky team from the top 25 by beating them in Rupp Arena. Later that year, South Carolina emasculated Kentucky in Columbia in an unforgettably embarrassing affair where the Wildcats had 16 shots blocked and allowed 10 Gamecock steals, five by Devan Downey alone.
Kentucky fared only a little better in 2009, falling to South Carolina for their first loss of the season and the third straight loss to Darrin Horn's team. The 2009-10 Wildcats later avenged that insult to some extent in Rupp Arena, but many close watchers of the Kentucky program have the feeling of synchronicity going into Columbia this weekend -- the feeling that causally unrelated events are occurring together in a cosmically meaningful manner.
"Beware the secrets of synchronicity." I could do without that thought, but it's right there in front of my mind, especially as Kentucky is coming off an irksome loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide, and the Gamecocks are coming off two straight wins at the Florida Gators and versus the Arkansas Razorbacks. Since former Lexingtonian Darrin Horn first came to coach in Columbia, there seems to be some kind of karmic connection between the Gamecocks and the Wildcats, and it doesn't seem beneficial for Kentucky.
Karma aside, this Kentucky team has to find something that is currently missing. It isn't talent, and it isn't skill. The Wildcats have those things in abundance. It certainly isn't coaching, because John Calipari has won more men's college basketball games over the last five years than any other coach in America. So what is the ingredient that seems to show up against weak teams and disappear in hostile environments lately?
I'm pretty sure I know what it is, and Calipari has alluded to it many times. He has frequently pointed out that the 2010-11 version of the Wildcats aren't in this together like last year. Last year, the young Wildcats had an "us against the world" viewpoint, an insular, almost single-minded fixation on winning basketball games by doing whatever was required of them. It was only when they were required to do one thing -- shoot a high percentage from the perimeter -- that their skills proved unequal to the challenge. That one thing eventually ended their season short of the brass ring.
This year, there is no such bond, no "band of brothers." These young men of 2010-11 have no sense that they are under siege, and play the game as though it was just another AAU contest. That attitude has its advantages in certain situations, but so far, whenever this team has come under pressure that would require them to win as a team, they have failed to rise to the occasion. When placed under duress, this year's Kentucky team has not necessarily wilted, but neither have they been able to win.
There is a reason Kentucky fans long for more players from inside the Commonwealth, and that reason is that such players often don't need anything more than K-E-N-T-U-C-K-Y across the front of their jersey to be willing to crawl naked over broken glass if that's what it takes to get a victory for the Blue and White. Despite their talent, skill, athleticism and the fact that they are apparently great kids, these young freshmen lack that inborn passion -- it must be absorbed through coaching or osmosis, and that can sometimes take a while.
So it is with a feeling of significant discomfort that I turn my eyes southeast toward Colonial Life Arena and the upcoming tilt with the Gamecocks. This game has taken on a remarkable significance that I never would have imagined earlier in the year, and it is arguably the biggest game of the 2010-11 season to date.
The consequences of losing this upcoming game are dire, and the rewards for winning are not commensurately great. The pressure is squarely on the backs of this freshman-led group, and a loss here could seriously complicate the Wildcats' chances in the post season. Lose this game, and Kentucky would hit a 2-game road skid that might propel them right out of the top 25 altogether, and place them under a ton of pressure to win at home against a Georgia Bulldogs team that has been very good this season and already has a Kentucky notch on their belt.
While these young UK men have performed well under pressure, they haven't really won under duress since the game against the Washington Huskies in the Maui Classic. Every game has either been a loss or a comfortable win, and the Wildcats are batting 0-for close games. As if all that weren't enough, three out of the next four games that Kentucky plays are on the road, and the road has been a very, very unfriendly place for Kentucky so far.
As I write this, many miles away in the lonely hills of the East, something crawls from the cold muck of a dark Kentucky pond and shambles to the farmhouse door. Beware the secrets of synchronicity.