Kentucky fans have long had a love-hate relationship with much of the national media. They love to puff out their chests when a Dan Wetzel, Gregg Doyel or Seth Davis or other prominent sportswriter gives the team props, but turn like, well, a bunch of Wildcats when the writer has much of anything less kind to say.
One national columnist who has set out his own course -- Big Blue Q-rating be damned -- is the Sporting News' Michael DeCourcy.
Mr. DeCourcy was among the first national writers to talk about Tubby Smith's recruiting and has taken time to both watch and examine the Cats before spouting off in his magazine's pages.
We sat down (electronically) with a gracious Mr. DeCourcy recently to pick his brain about the head coach, NCAA rules, the SEC this season and more.
Ten Questions for Mike DeCourcy
Sea of Blue: How much of the criticism of UK coach Tubby Smith do you feel is justified? We've seen your comments regarding recruiting issues and recently about the lack of team identity. Do you think Smith's job security should be at issue?
Mike DeCourcy: I've been writing for years that the key is not Kentucky finding a great coach; it's for Kentucky to get the great coach it has to do his job as well as possible. He has not gotten the best direction from his bosses. They've allowed him to make too many mistakes over the years.
Tubby is a highly effective coach. He is exceptional in the areas of defense, effort and individual development. He is not as strong at developing and designing offense. So where is the coach who can help him with that deficiency? Not on his bench. Tubby is not as effective in the area of recruiting. His track record as UK head coach, pure and simple, says that's not a strength. So where are the coaches who can help him there? Not on his bench.
The criticism of his recruiting is warranted. UK has as much to sell as any program in the nation, but too frequently is not a player with top prospects.
SoB: There is a fissure in Big Blue Nation these days, with accusations flying back and forth among those whose disdain for the current situation compels them to focus on the negatives and their counterparts who talk about "unrealistic expectations." Which side is right? (I know it's a loaded question).
MD: Both, I suppose. There are reasonable concerns about the program, and I imagine there are some with unrealistic expectations. I remember the days when listening to a UK postgame show after a loss was the best theater; my favorite was following the loss to Ole Miss in 1997 when one caller suggested Scott Padgett be "demoted to towel boy." That loss, of course, dropped UK all the way to 14-2 and was one of five the Cats endured that particular year.
The problems I have with the criticisms are how off the mark they start to get. Kentucky isn't failing to get players because it "plays slow." That's a complete myth that the fan base has created and perpetuated. UK had five double-figure scorers as recently as '04. There's a difference between playing slow and "can't score."
SoB: Much hay has been made about the lack of fundamentals in today's college basketball players. Some attribute this to the AAU system and the meat market quality of prep hoops. One theory I don't see talked about much are the practice hours restrictions placed on NCAA coaches and the shorter hours available to coaches versus 15 or 20 years ago. How do you feel these restrictions affect the game and its players?
MD: I think the restrictions on practice time are intellectually dishonest at best and counterintuitive at worst. Athletics is the only area at a university where excellence is actively discouraged. Isn't that ridiculous? We want students in the library reading books, in a chem lab doing experiments or, more to the point, in a music room practicing piano. But don't be out on the court working on your post moves! That's an inexcusable inconsistency.
The part of these restrictions that is most absurd is the amount of money paid to coaches who then are forced not to do their jobs. Tubby Smith makes about $2 million. Tom Izzo makes about that. So does Rick Pitino. And then we tell them all not to coach their players during the summers or more than two hours per week during the offseason while school is in session. I'm happy for those guys that they make so much. But if I were writing those checks, I'd want them to work more, not less.
SoB: Can this season's Kentucky team -- which you've now seen several times -- make the Final Four?
MD: It would have to be a heck of a draw. The point guard situation is not ideal, although I think Derrick Jasper will be very good as he gains experience. At shooting guard, Ramel Bradley has to start running the plays that are called. He'll get his scoring opportunities if he does, but right now he's either shooting or attacking nearly every time he touches the ball. UK's offense can't afford to be disrupted like that. I also don't think the power forward situation is ideal. I do believe UK can have a top-20 season and win a couple games in the NCAAs. If UK can reach that point, I'd say it will have been a successful year.
SoB: Who do you feel is the best collegiate player in the SEC this season? (i.e., not focusing on pro potential)
MD: It's Glen Davis, and that's over some very good competition. Ronald Steele is outstanding, and Chris Lofton just keeps getting better. But Davis gets you a double-double every night, and he's as good a teammate as you can find.
SoB: Which NCAA coach will be the next to win his first national title?
MD: Thad Matta. He's among the most effective head-coach recruiters I've encountered, and he's a phenomenal coach.
SoB: The era of the pressing, high octane champion seems to be waning. The last few champions have been talented offensive teams, but teams which relied ultimately on a stout interior defense rather than a full-court press, a la Kentucky (1996) and Arkansas (1994). Does this mean Rick Pitino's heydey has passed? Can he win an NCAA title at Louisville?
MD: First, let me dispel the notion that Kentucky won the '96 title because of its press. The '96 Kentucky team, the best team in my 20-plus years of covering college basketball, might have been the best halfcourt defensive team ever. UK got through a few rounds of that tournament by pressing, but against the toughest opponents even the best prssure doesn't really work. But Pitino's post traps did, taking out Tim Duncan and Marcus Camby in consecutive games. It was amazing to watch.
Better opponents are going to have at least one great ballhandler to deal with a press, and they're not likely to panic, and they're more likely to attack a press and make the defense pay. You can use a press in limited doses, but if you think you're going to press your way through 40 minutes to a national title, you're not paying attention.
I don't think Rick Pitino's time has passed. He's still recruiting very good players. Remember, his Final Four team two years back almost never pressed. But they got there.
SoB: You've seen plenty of games at the major college arenas. Many UK fans feel that Rupp Arena, with its higher-priced seats full of longtime, often elderly, fans in the lower bowl has lost its edge. How do you feel Rupp ranks among the nation's home court advantages?
MD: Again, a manufactured issue. UK is one of the best homecourt atmospheres in the country. I don't think there's any arena I enjoy visiting more. The fans there are great. They know when their team needs them. They can be a quick to voice their opinion, and maybe a little harsh; booing the insertion of Sheray Thomas during the Indiana game is an example of that. Is Rupp the loudest crowd in the nation? Probably not. But it's close enough.
SoB: Has the internet been good or bad for college basketball?
MD: Everything that is new, you're going to have people focusing on the negative. Radio was bad, and then TV, and then cable -- on and on. Are there negatives to the internet? Sure. There are negatives to every invention; cars pollute, cell phones annoy some people.
I recognize where there are problems that develop from the internet relating to college basketball. But for every problem, there's an opportunity to follow the sport more closely, more passionately, on a more informed basis. The internet has given access to my work to millions of people. You can read my stuff every day, sometimes more than once per day. Yeah, like I'm going to say that's bad.
SoB: Can we pin you down to pick the 2006-07 national champion?
MD: I picked North Carolina at the start of the year. They have a ton of talent and I think they'll keep getting better, so I'm not abandoning that pick now. I knew Greg Oden probably would be back by now, but because of the doubts that already existed in picking a team whose best players would be freshmen, the uncertainty that resulted from the injury made it too hard to pick Ohio State. But right now, I'd say they're the scariest team out there because Oden is likely to keep getting better.