Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble
When you’re perfect in every way
I can’t wait to look in the mirror
I get better looking each day. – Mac Davis
I’ve been told now, repeatedly and mostly by Louisville Cardinals fans, that we Kentucky fans must be humbled by our recently completed, less-than-stellar season. We are told by these worthies that this year proves that any group of incoming freshmen can fail badly, and that our loss to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT is a cautionary tale that should ward us off any bold statements about next season.
While this might seem reasonable to some, let me just state at the outset that Kentucky fans, particularly since John Calipari has come to town, are never going to be known as a humble bunch. The players may be. The coach may be. But the fans will not be. Whether that’s for good or ill depends more on your partisan persuasion than anything else.
Don’t get me wrong – after a loss, we are appropriately contrite, we congratulate our opponent, and we don’t make excuses for our failure. Losing is just as much a part of basketball as winning, and we don’t need to be bad losers, or bad winners around here, and I think, on balance, this represents the attitude of the Big Blue Nation. (Mandatory disclaimer: Every fan base has Bad FansTM who will make a mockery out of anything good that is said about the team’s fans in general, Kentucky most certainly included.)
Let me remind everyone, however, the 2012-13 season is over. For UK fans, it has been over for weeks. The mourning period, which is the time to be as resigned as you feel you must, is past. We have seen the McDonald’s All-American game and the Jordan Brand Classic. We know that the players coming to UK are as advertised, and that unlike last year’s team, 2013-14 will have a full compliment of competitive players. More importantly, unlike last year, next year’s team will have real competition for their spots, and skilled players to compete against them in practice. The benefit of this cannot be overstated.
We have learned lessons from this recently-concluded season, including:
If the coach tells you the team is vastly overrated, you should listen;
If you don’t bring in shooters, you have a problem;
All recruiting classes are not equal, no matter how highly ranked;
Too few players on a team is a problem, as embodied by Calipari’s "the program almost got hijacked" comment.
In a rare moment of lucidity unrelated to Rick Pitino’s nether regions, Pat Forde got it right:
Relying on recruiting elite talent for the short haul, Calipari’s Kentucky team is experiencing the dark side of one-and-done – a team where the freshmen are not quite ready to conquer the world, and there is insufficient depth to compensate for a major injury. Calipari’s first three seasons at UK were raging successes: two No. 1 seeds, an elite eight, two Final Fours, one national title. Next season may be another one, with an ungodly stockpile of new talent ready to move in. But in between, this is what happens when you fall off the one-and-done wire and there is no safety net. [Emphasis mine.]
Actually, Forde got it mostly right. The part about falling off the one-and-done wire was entirely self-inflicted by Coach Cal and his staff, a little game they have played for two straight seasons and drawn inside straight flushes both times. This year provided the sobering reminder that those are really hard to make, and expecting to go season after season injury-free is, at best, unrealistic.
Calipari’s viewpoint on that has changed. This season sees the confluence of the bright side of a failed one-and-done class – the majority of it returning – and an otherworldly incoming recruiting class that by all reasonable accounts is the best ever assembled. The end result has college basketball abuzz.
So our rivals will just have to forgive us our irrational exuberance, because it isn’t going to change. Around here, we long ago learned to embrace the hate. Now, it’s time for us to embrace the hype of next year’s team. No matter what our rivals may tell you, the hype is well deserved, and if you don’t know that by now, you haven’t been paying attention.
"But look at last year!", Kentucky detractors and "reasonable" people will tell you. "You were ranked third going into the season and you lost in the first round of the NIT!"
True, but irrelevant for three reasons:
Nerlens Noel, Kentucky’s best player, was injured halfway through the conference season;
The 2012 Kentucky class was measurably inferior to every one of Calipari’s other three UK classes;
Everybody, including rivals, the media, and the Big Blue Nation ignored Calipari’s warning that this team was vastly overrated.
The 2013 class is already the greatest incoming freshman class in history by rating. Even if Andrew Wiggins matriculates elsewhere, this will still be the highest-rated class ever to sign anywhere. Whether it is actually the greatest when it comes to results will, of course, have to wait for the events of the season to decide.
Which brings me to my next point – team chemistry. There was a notable difference between the chemistry in the 2011-12 team and the 2012-13 team. For whatever reason, 2012-13 did not gel as a team, and as a result, they didn’t play as a team. They never seemed close, and judging from anecdotal evidence, they weren’t. That isn’t to say they didn’t like each other, but they were anything but a "Band of brothers."
The biggest problem with last year’s team boiled down to this: If you can’t make shots from the perimeter, you get the "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" problem. The result was countless futile drives to a well-defended basket by Poythress and Goodwin, and perhaps the most charges ever by a Kentucky team. A one-dimensional team is not a very good team.
2013-14 does not have the same problem with perimeter shooting. You can play the "Show me" game all you want, but with Kyle Wiltjer and Alex Poythress returning, and the two best shooting guards in the 2013 class coming in, living in a "Show me" world is tantamount to burying one’s head in the sand. Outside shooting will be a strength of next year’s team, just as it was when Doron Lamb and Brandon Knight wore the Blue and White together.
The Big Blue Nation does not need to be penitent any longer. Basketball is over for 2013, and we are all ready to stop our mourning and begin the anticipation for another run to the NCAA Tournament championship. Nothing less will be expected, or, in all honesty, acceptable. When we bring in great players, we expect great results, and no greater group of players has ever been brought onto a college campus as freshmen in the history of the game.
So embrace the hype. If I can do it here in the heart of Cardinal-dom, you can surely do it as well in your comfy Lexington digs, or far away from where basketball matters.