Mike DeCourcy at The Sporting News has handed out mid-season awards and razzies in this article, and there is, as usual, some good stuff in there, and Nerlens Noel even finds himself 4th on the list of best freshmen in the country. But the part of the article I want to discuss here is this:
Most disappointing team
1. Kentucky. Is it fair to judge a team with so many freshmen so harshly? Honestly, we’re not trying to be harsh. Perhaps it’s just that if you look at our preseason top 25, almost everyone included is doing roughly as well as expected. Except UK. And perhaps it’s the bar that was set for this group of Wildcats by their predecessors. But it’s also giving up 40 points to a mid-teens scorer and losing at home to a middling Baylor squad. Kentucky can do better.
2. North Carolina
3. West Virginia
5. Oregon State
So is Kentucky really the most disappointing team, or did we all just have a case of the NCAA Tournament Champ reflux disease? When John Calipari first started getting ready for the season, he warned everyone that this team was not very good:
"Whoever did that needs to be drug-tested," Calipari said Thursday at Southeastern Conference media days. "We're not very good right now. I think we'll be a good team eventually, hopefully, but right now we're just average."
So the coach, who presumably knows more about his team than us bloggers and even sportswriters like DeCourcy told us almost from the outset that we were all crazy. I was as guilty as the next guy for scoffing at his comments, chalking it up to "coach speak" and the usual attempt to control expectations, and to be fair, you know it was just that. He made similar, if less emphatic self-deprecating comments in 2011 early on.
Calipari was trying to tell us. We wouldn't listen, at least not most of us -- a few did, at least a little. I'm not being critical, we all had our reasons and they were all defensible. They were also wrong. Kentucky isn't really average when it comes to individual talent, but right now, the team looks average, it's body of work is average, and until it proves itself by beating somebody, well, average is how they will be perceived, and who can gainsay that perception?
Which leads us to disappointment. Most Kentucky fans are probably disappointed with the trajectory of the season because, quite reasonably, we always want to be in the national conversation. In the quantitative sense, the fall from top three to unranked is dramatic, and a national "fan of basketball," if there really is such a thing as a non-partisan fan of the game, could consider it disappointing that the winningest program in history is not among the top teams right now.
Qualitatively, I think the notion that Kentucky has been disappointing is probably wrong. Consider that in 2009-10, Kentucky had two players that were #1 at their spot out of high school, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. 2011-12 had three top position players - Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Marquis Teague. 2012-13 has only one top position player -- Nerlens Noel, and no real returners.
Back in 2010-11, UK was in a similar situation with Brandon Knight being the only top position player. In January and February Knight & Co. were probably considered a disappointment. By March, the only ones disappointed were their opponents until they got to the Final Four.
If nothing else, this year is a chance for Kentucky fans to learn things as well. It isn't enough just to have a load of five-star freshmen, you need at least two extraordinary five stars, #1 or #2 in the nation at their position if you are going to win big early. Otherwise, you have to wait for everyone else to catch up.
So should we call it a "rebuilding" year? In a sense, perhaps it is, although there is still a lot of season remaining in which many things can happen. I keep comparing this team to 2010-11 because there are many similarities, but there are also some dissimilarities. For example, 2011 had a much better back court, and back courts take you far in the tournament. 2013's back court is not weak, but I don't think anyone would take Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin over Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb. It's a relative thing.
It's probably reasonable to call this Kentucky team disappointing so far, but in retrospect, it shouldn't be. Most of us just believed a little too much in Calipari's nonexistent (as he'd be the first to tell you) magic wand. Can Kentucky do better? I believe so, and certainly the more games they play, the better they will become. Its frustrating to see it take so long for the Wildcats to reach a high level, and it may take longer than they have left. If so, it won't be the first time a young team has not lived up to exalted expectations.
So call us disappointing, I guess. For now.