Judging from the comments on this blog and at Kentucky fan sites around the Internet, the Wildcats come back from Oxford a team that can no longer be loved. According to disappointed fans, they just aren't good enough, they aren't deep enough, they lack heart, or strength, or toughness, or any number of other attributes apparently indispensable to good basketball. There is talk of lowering expectations, talk about looking forward to next year's #1 recruiting class.
Well, what about this year's #1 recruiting class? These guys were getting plaudits at the end of the pre-conference season after going into the River City's new arena and dominating the Louisville Cardinals so completely that there was never any doubt who the better team was. This is the same Louisville team who went up to Storrs a few days ago and defeated the same Connecticut Huskies team that handled the Wildcats so easily in the Maui Classic, and thrashed the St. Johns team than handled Duke the other night.
That same Kentucky team went on the road to face Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Ole Miss and came out of those trips with one win and three close losses. During these sojourns, we have learned a thing or two about this team, and I'm not sure we have all learned the same things. But I think we can all agree that the major missing ingredient seems to be physical toughness, as well as shared confidence in each other. I'll explain what I mean after the jump.
The toughness part requires no real exposition. Almost all of us would agree that the Wildcats have been pushed around physically in three of the four road games. We see this when the 'Cats get stripped of the ball, or get balls poked loose after rebounds, or fail to win scrambles for loose balls. But more importantly, we see a reluctance to physically dominate an opponent on both offense and defense. Instead of getting up in people's faces and fighting for every inch, these Wildcats back off, they fail to mover their feet, and they do whatever they can to avoid contact.
The other part is shared confidence. You see that when you watch Terrence Jones put his head down, drive to the basket, and take a tough, challenged shot rather than dumping it off to an open teammate. You see it when Brandon Knight takes the 3-point jumper after only one or two passes. You see it when Darius Miller turns down a wide-open 3-point shot late in the shot clock at the end of the game.
John Calipari has declared that confidence is demonstrated performance. That makes sense -- when you show that you can do something, you feel certain you can do it again. You don't always pull it off, but once you get that feeling that you can, you aren't afraid to try.
That's what the Wildcats lack right now to some extent -- demonstrated performance in tough games. They have played three such games recently, and they have lost them all. That breeds the self-doubt that we have seen in the most recent defeat in Oxford, and it is important that these young players develop the confidence to win tough games on the road.
Make no mistake about it -- this team should be better than this. They have more talent, more skill, and generally more athleticism than any opponent they face. But we know from bitter, first-hand experience that talent and skill are not enough. We know this team is not close, they are not a "band of brothers." They are several individuals who have simply not found the personal chemistry to bond like last year's team did, and that all truly great teams do.
Perhaps a good analogue to this team is the Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkein's band of nine who started out on an impossible journey against insurmountable odds. They started out with much mutual distrust and even a bit of loathing toward their fellow-travelers. They wound up, what was left of them in the end, inseparable.
So the Wildcats find themselves at a crossroads, perhaps similar to the one the Fellowship faced in the Mines of Moria. When they came to the part of the path that Gandalf did not know, his words to the group were, "I have no memory of this place," and he did not know which path to take.
That's the spot this Kentucky team finds itself in right now. Most of them have never been in a metaphorical place like this. They have no memory of how to deal with the problems they face, because they are unfamiliar territory. The coaching staff knows, of course, but that will only get you so far, as we have seen. The actual experience has turned out to be more difficult than probably some of these guys expected.
At this point, though, they have the experience. The time for learning has now come. They cannot rationalize away three games lost in the end, so it's time to come to the realization that they are not doing the right things to succeed. They say that recognizing the problem is more than half of solving it. I can't say if all the players truly realize that they don't know the way forward, or if, like men are so famous for when they are lost, are rationalizing it away to some other cause and blindly determined to find their way without a map.
If these guys know that they are lost in close game situations, they will be able to fix it. They are going in the right direction, but in a basketball season, there are only so many games. You can't take your time and a circuitous route to find the way through the mines, or you'll be watching the post season on TV. A sense of urgency is necessary, and hopefully the young Wildcats feel that urgency now.
Gandalf solved the problem by following his nose, and taking the path that didn't smell so dank and foul. Kentucky's solution is more complex in the abstract, but they still must apply what they've learned in order to improve. Late-game missed layups, like the one by Brandon Knight, come back to haunt. Hesitation in late-game, late-clock scenarios, like Darius Miller's now famous reluctance to shoot, have to be coached away. And they can be.
Don't lose faith in this team. Don't stop loving them. If you've never loved them, start. We are Wildcat fans, not fair-weather fans from Florida or Georgia. A la Jerry McGuire, we stick. For a final note, I recall to you Dickie Fox, Jerry's mentor, who had outstanding advice for his protégé that rings true not just for the Wildcats, but for the rest of us: "If [your heart] is empty, [your head] doesn't matter."