Locusts, Frogs, water turning to blood, fire raining from above, Biblical stuff. That is what this team has had to fight through. And just like the Egyptians in the past, because they did not want to heed the words of the man trying to show them how to avoid the plagues, they had to learn the hard way. They have, however, learned.
As if it was not bad enough for this team to struggle with everything that has been put in front of them, they lose their best player to a stupid injury, one that was 100% avoidable, if only safety on the court was as important as convenience. The baskets don't have to go on those kinds of structures. They come down from the rafters in almost every high school gym in the country. Someone needs to develop a basket that hangs and cannot injure anyone. Then clear out a few of those people a few more feet back and put a seriously padded structure for people to be behind.
Yes, I know, they have the same stuff as about 90% of the facilities out there, however someone should have seen this coming. It is all part and parcel for this group though, as they would not have it any other way.
From day one, this team was not interested in going out and spending a little time doing more than was needed. They thought that talent alone would get them where they wanted to go. They were, after all, John Calipari's next class of wunderkinds. The elite of the elite. Surely they could handle the limited talents of a rundown SEC, and, according to some experts, a weak schedule.
Then reality sunk in on these newly-minted Wildcats, and they found out that this is not high school, where they were better than everyone else. They had to start fighting. Nerlens Noel was the first on the bandwagon as he began to improve from the first game of the season. Willie Cauley-Stein showed flashes, but he could not master the art of sharing the paint. He struggled with positioning and footwork, seeming out of sorts and out of rhythm.
At first Kyle Wiltjer looked like the Ugly Duckling. He was gangling, slow, inefficient, and showed no signs of being anything more than his role on last year's team. He either could not, or would not penetrate the paint, and stood around waiting for the ball on the perimeter on almost every offensive set. Defensively, he was a train wreck. He couldn't guard an anvil. Then slowly, almost like the transporters that used to move the rockets onto the pad in Cape Canaveral before a space launch, he started gaining ground.
First he learned to move, then to penetrate, then to pass out of bad positions, then he was able to take his man one on one. And now he has the ability to move about freely in almost any defense. His own defensive skills have not yet completely come around, but he is better than the early part of the season. That three point shot alone is enough to keep him out of trouble most of the time now.
Alex Poythress was the most frustrating. He came out of the starting gate so fast and agile, we thought that Secretariat had come again. A smooth release from outside, and lightning quick to the basket that seemed so effortless, it was like he was moving faster than anyone else on the court, and he just glided through the air. It was almost art form. Then he disappeared -- for games at a time, he just vanished. And for the last 10 games, he has struggled, fought, climbed and clawed his way back.
But our guards were the saving grace, or at least, they were at first. They were faster than Richard Petty on Sunday. We had experience returning to guide our youth, and we had a kid that no one had the defensive moves to stop. Nothing to worry about there. We would slash and burn our way through everyone we saw. If we could not run through them, we would shoot and pass over them. Then we forgot how to pass. Then we forgot how to shoot. That blinding speed? It doesn't help much when you cannot penetrate and hold onto the ball. And when you do penetrate, if you cannot make the free throws, teams are just going to bump and bang you into submission.
Then, about four weeks ago, the lights started coming on. After a tough loss at Alabama, Coach Cal started getting through to some of his youth brigade. They started seeing that there was more than one way to play this game, and the man that brought them all here might just know something after all. They started passing, moving without the ball, and giving their potential #1 draft pick center some help. They started becoming a team. So what happens as soon as they begin to come together? Down goes Noel.
They reeled. They slumped over like they had just been shot and tried to run and hide. They allowed Florida to run all over them, then followed that with a debacle at Tennessee that still stings some to this day. But the good part of these disasters is that this group remembers every bump, bruise, and bang along the way. Calipari's Kids remember every time sand was kicked in their faces, and why it happened. Yes, they have to win the hard way. Yes, they still drive 5 miles out of their way for ice cream, but they get there. The Vandy and Missouri games have shown everyone that this team has what it takes deep down inside. They just don't let it out very easily.
Cal had to loosen them up. He needed to put them in positions where they could play to their potential without having the world hanging on their shoulders. He needed them to ease into the burden that comes with that blue and white jersey they wear. Lo and behold, they seem to understand. They have learned to put the team first, and themselves in the background. They have learned that extra effort and some smart execution go a long way to making your shortcomings disappear in the light of game pressure. They are learning to score when they need to.
This team is still a work in progress. They will always be. If they were to win every game for the rest of the season they would still be a work in progress. It would not surprise me if they won the entire thing this year, or if they fell flat on their faces tomorrow. They are just one of those teams that have to work through everything. There are not 5 Top 10 draft picks on this squad -- there may not even be a Top 10 draft pick on this squad anymore. There are, however, a lot of guys that are learning more and more every time they take the court. They are putting it all together one piece at a time.
If there is enough time remaining, they are going to surprise a lot of people for the next month. Is there enough time? That I do not know. With this team, we are just going to have to accept that we just don't know. It's going to have to be a part of what makes this team who they are. And just who are they? Well, I have waited all season to find the moniker for this group, and I think I finally have.
They are the Unpredictables. Fun to watch at times, sometimes not. Winning big time? That's no fun. This team is going to grind it out night after night. We, the Big Blue Nation, are not used to this type of team. We like our 25 point blowouts. We want to crush our opponents and use their ground up bones for our bread. This is not that kind of a team. This team is different, almost as different as night and day, and that is just from game to game.
So the game has changed. The Unpredictables have arrived, and are starring in a production near you. I hope you enjoy them, and don't look away from your screen for too long. You might miss something, because you never know what this team is going to do, but they are never boring. Nooo. That would be too easy.