Kentucky Basketball: After Last Season, It's Time To Learn To Enjoy The Ride

Ronald Martinez

A lot of Kentucky fans, including your humble correspondent, had their expectations meter pegged from day one last season. It's time to dial that thing back and enjoy the ride.

UK fans are going to be temped again this season, just like last, to engage in a lot of hyperbole about the men's basketball team. This is not without justification — there is very little doubt that UK returns a lot of talent, and brings in almost as much as it retains for what is colloquially known as "an embarrassment of riches." That just is what it is, and teams so blessed are often considered early favorites to win it all. UK deserves that spot on talent alone, but it is also true that Kentucky got to the NCAA Tournament finals last season, a matter of some importance.

I think we have established that some hyperbole is warranted, or at least understandable. If nothing else, though, last season taught us that an embarrassment of riches, which Kentucky had in no small part then as well as now, is not enough. The fact that Kentucky found its way through a gauntlet of travails to get to their exalted perch on the last day of the season is not to be minimized, but it's also not to be over-emphasized. Consider this, from Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News:

While it is true the Wildcats came within six points of a championship in 2014, they also came within a few points of losing in the round of 32 (and the Sweet 16, and the Elite Eight, and the national semifinals). They were not dominant. They had flaws. The return of the Harrisons does not immediately solve those problems, because in some cases they were the cause.

This is right, and we need to step back and think. Kentucky had a lot of problems as a team that it was able to overcome in the NCAA tournament by doing one thing well — putting the ball in the basket.  The reality is that this Kentucky team had no business being where it was when you consider how weak they were defensively — 41st in defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy's stats.

In the end, Kentucky couldn't sustain that offense, and didn't have enough solid defense to defeat UConn. Some of those problems will not be solved by the return of the Harrison twins — in fact, as DeCourcy suggests, they were the source of some of the defensive problems he is talking about.

Kentucky will surely be a powerful offensive team again next season given the returning talent, size, and skill along with some sweet-shooting newcomers. But one thing we have learned is that very few high school players come in with the mindset to defend, especially when they were scoring machines on their prep teams. Andrew and Aaron Harrison were among the worst defenders on the team, and never did learn how to effectively guard smaller, quicker players, although they did get better at it throughout the year.

If Kentucky is to succeed next season, better defense from our big guards is a must. So is better 3-point shooting, and no doubt the matriculation of pesky defender Tyler Ulis and deadly shooter Devin Booker to Kentucky will help. But the twins have to learn to improve both skills, and Andrew has to figure out how to become a better point guard. While there is benefit at the next level for him to be a capable combo guard (and he will doubtless get some time at the two this season with Ulis aboard), he really needs to hone his craft at the point to a much higher level.

Aaron has offensive as well as defensive work to do. I am much more sanguine about him, though, because he has a very mechanically-sound jumper, and I think the will become a 40+% 3-point shooter next season. We saw flashes of this in the NCAA Tournament, where he shot 50% from the arc against arguably the best competition all year, and never mind the three cold-blooded 3-pointers he drained to either advance the Wildcats outright or give them a permanent lead near the end of the game.

Aaron's lack of elite athleticism may well make him a marginal first-round pick even next season — 6'5" wing guards are a dime a dozen, although if he becomes a genuine knock-down shooter he can really advance his prospects.

Finally, I think all the hand-wringing about playing time is overwrought. Calipari will find playing time for those who earn it, and he is nothing if not willing to try different things than he's tried before. His famous conversation with John Wooden about playing too many people did not contemplate a team with nine McDonald's All-Americans.

No matter what happens, UK fans would be best served to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the season. Yes, we'll have anxious moments, and Kentucky is very likely to lose some games — although hopefully not 11, like this past season. As exciting as last season was in it's feast-or-famine sort of way, it was, from its inception, unnecessarily stressful for us fans. We don't need the season to be easy; rather, we need it to be fun, and we control whether or not that can happen to a large extent.

Finally, Dick Vitale said yesterday that an NCAA Tournament title in 2015 isn't "... lock city":

"Big Blue Nation has every right to be excited and enthused. On paper, they probably have the best team ever assembled. But you still have got to perform and remember the system exists. One bad night and the party could be over. Even as good as Kentucky will be, they are not lock city to cut the nets down (after winning the national championship). But they certainly have a great, great chance."

Again, I think this is right. Back during the years between 2005 and 2009 when we were wandering in the desert of irrelevance, many, and perhaps most of the Big Blue Nation said that they would be happy if we could just compete for the national title year in and year out. I think that is a fine standard, and as long as the team competes (which to me means getting to the Final Four more often than not) for championships, they are going to win some.

So let's get ready to compete!

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