Kentucky Basketball: 2012-13 Season Postmortem

Kevin C. Cox

2012-13 did not work out for Kentucky like it was supposed to.

The time has finally come for the season postmortem. We have been in mourning now for over two weeks, the loss to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT is past, and it’s time to slice into the cadaver of 2012-13, and it’s not a pretty corpse. Ken penned an article yesterday that described all the statistical damage, and this article tries to look at the bigger picture.

What we hope to discover on examination is what went right, what went wrong, and what lessons, if any, can be taken away from the season as a whole. Many people would tell you that the season should be written off, but the old saying is that those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but as a Kentucky fan, I never want to have to have another 2012-13.

What Went Right

  • I thought the team played hard every game except three. The Tennessee Volunteers game right after the Noel injury, the Vanderbilt Commodores game in the SEC tournament, and the Baylor Bears game back in December of last year. Those three games, upon reflection, saw the team give an unsatisfactory effort. Two of them had an excuse – Baylor was coming off a shocking road loss to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Tennessee off Nerlens Noel’s injury. The Vanderbilt game was an inexcusable disaster. You may quibble about this, but this is my story and I’m sticking to it.

  • Kentucky played well in mostly losing efforts against their top competition. The Duke Blue Devils game was a quality effort that was nearly enough, the same was true at Louisville where Kentucky made a stirring comeback and nearly got to the wire. The win over the Florida Gators at the end of the regular season was outstanding.

  • Nerlens Noel was as advertised, and prior to going down with a season-ending ACL tear, was on pace to threaten Anthony Davis’ shot-blocking freshman record at Kentucky.

  • Willie Cauley-Stein had a very good season overall for a player of his modest reputation, and looks to be on his way to a monstrous 2013-14.

  • Julius Mays was a fine addition to our team and had a good year. He was always under-talented for Kentucky, but he made the most of what he had to offer, and without him, I think the season would have been much uglier.

  • Jarrod Polson had a fantastic year, and played almost to the limits of his ability, which nobody else approached save maybe Mays.

  • John Calipari tried everything. I’ll give him that. He tried motivation through the media, he tried challenging his players, he tried "boot camp," he took of the tie … you name it, he tried it. That’s what a coach is supposed to do.

What Went Wrong

  • 2012-13 never developed an identity. We have seen this before, but never with a John Calipari team. When Noel was available and at his best, Kentucky showed some signs of becoming a tough defensive team, but that vanished when he went down with injury. 2012-13 Kentucky was a nondescript team very similar to 2008-09, or the 2006-07 team.

  • Kentucky couldn’t shoot. This team shot the ball only slightly better from three than 2009-10, and 3-point shooting cost that team a trip to the Final Four. Archie Goodwin was described once as "a shooting guard who can’t shoot," and statistically, there is no denying that was true.

  • Lousy defense. 2012-13 was by far the worst defensive team in the John Calipari era. Along with the struggle to score on the perimeter, it was a deadly combination. Kentucky really struggled with transition defense, which is why Noel wound up injured. On the play that ended his season, Noel went baseline to baseline to block a shot while the rest of the team was still on the other end.

  • Weak point guard play. Ryan Harrow may be a great kid, but he seemed to lack the confidence to play point guard on the biggest stage in America. Like Billy Gillispie as coach, Harrow just didn’t have the right personality for the position, and whatever the cause, he was ineffective.

  • Inability to finish possessions. Both offensively and defensively, Kentucky would weaken as a team about 15 seconds into the shot clock, right when it needed to get stronger.

  • Lack of bounce-back. Never once did Kentucky successfully bounce back from a tough loss. Consider the Notre Dame-Baylor, Florida-Tennessee and Vanderbilt-Robert Morris couplets. In each case, Kentucky needed to bounce back from a bad loss, and it failed each time. Only the Florida-Tennessee pair had a plausible excuse.

  • The schedule was too weak. Even if this team had lost several more games, it would have been better for a stronger schedule. That was partly Calipari’s fault and partly uncontrollable ineptitude by the weakness of the SEC.

  • This was the worst free-throw shooting team in the past ten years at least. As much as Kentucky got fouled, that was a huge drag on offensive efficiency.

  • Calipari went off the reservation suggesting some of his players were "not real coachable." Whether that’s true or not, that’s not something you shout during a game, and it’s more a knock on him than the players. My response to Calipari in that regard is that he needs to do a better job vetting players during the recruiting process. He gets paid millions, just like Rick Pitino, and I’ve never heard those words coming from Tattoo Ricky’s mouth.

  • This was a very poor rebounding team for its size, particularly without Nerlens Noel.

What We Learned

  • The 2012 recruiting class was too small. If you are going to bring in less than elite talent, and the only truly elite players in this group were Noel and Goodwin by recruiting ranking, then you need more players in the class. Having three open scholarships might have worked with a class like 2012, but it puts you in a position of not having great practice competition.

  • The 2012 recruiting class was not talented enough. We should have known this early, and Calipari and even some on this blog thought this group lacked sufficient talent. That may happen from time to time, but when it does, we should adjust our expectations. Yes, this is also a mea culpa.

  • Senior leadership isn’t enough. We had a senior on this team, in fact a graduate student. It wasn’t enough. Those who tell you experience is why Kentucky struggled this year don’t seem to realize that Kentucky started, for most of the season, a junior and a senior. This year’s Michigan Wolverines team was younger than Kentucky, both this year and last.

  • Kentucky must always bring in shooters. The 2012 recruiting class had only one guy who could get his own shot, and he couldn’t make the shots he got unless they were layups. Calipari has addressed that in 2013, but he must bring in more perimeter shooting every year than has normally been the case.

  • Free throw shooting is really important. Not that this is new.

  • You have to be able to bench players. Calipari said that UK was "held hostage" by some players who shouldn’t have been playing, but had to due to a lack of personnel. That’s Cal’s fault. He needs to make sure UK has a full roster.

I could go on with more, but I think it’s enough. The 2012-13 season, as far as I am concerned, is now ready to be interred with some of the other forgettable seasons that we have all lived through in Kentucky’s long history. Nobody will be elevated to a pedestal because of this season, either due to injury or sub-optimal performance.

2012-13 will be remembered mostly for the things that went wrong, the huge fall from a #3 ranking to the NIT, and that it was a disappointing follow-on to the magic of the year that preceded it. There is little in it to stir the blood for Kentucky fans – the great comeback against Louisville, maybe – but no particularly memorable play, and too many embarrassing losses by lopsided margins. As a basketball fan, I am never really happy when a season ends, even a bad one, but I came closer on this one than most.

Next year will most assuredly be different, and in a good way.

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