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The Cost of Loyalty

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For all of his detractors' many complaints about him, Tubby Smith has never been accused of being disloyal. OK, maybe a few fans thought that the head coach's dalliance with South Carolina a few years back was untoward, but odds are those same folks find issue with most anything the UK coach -- whomever he happens to be at the time -- does.

But when it comes to his players, Smith has shown a willingness to buck the odds and reward experience and selflessness, whether that's to the underperforming upperclassman or the overperforming newbie. With the 4-3 Wildcats reeling from three losses in four games -- and all three to top-15 teams -- some folks, including myself, are questioning whether Tubby's admirable loyalty has clouded his basketball judgement.

To wit, senior Sheray Thomas, he of the three-game suspension, miniscule averages and dubious visible on-court contributions, is still not only a key cog in the machine but a starter over his freshman counterpart, Perry Stevenson. Nevermind that Stevenson (4.1 rpg) has outrebounded Thomas (2.7) all season in fewer minutes, nor that he provides shot blocking (team-leading 16; Thomas, 4) and scoring (5.1 ppg; Thomas, 1.8) that a team struggling to score and defend desperately needs. Thomas cannot seem to play his way out of the lineup, no matter how hard he tries.

Tubby, in recent interviews, has cited Thomas' "physicality" as what keeps him in the lineup, and one can onlly assume that is some basketball trait that only a coach who watches these guys practice 20 hours a week minimum could possibly see. Because anyone who watches much basketball at any other school can see that Thomas appears, at best, a role player capable of spelling frontcourt players and hitting the occasional putback. Far from being damning praise, I would have to agree with Mark Story of the Herald-Leader, whose latest piece touches on this very subject.

As Story phrases it, and I agree on this topic, one of the coach's main jobs is to allow his players the best possible chances to succeed, and it's rather arguable at this point if Smith himself is capable of seeing what those chances are. In an effort to combat a rushing tide of negativity and the feeling he has lost some control of the program, it seems like Tubby has locked down again, forcing a "my way or the highway" feel into proceedings that used to seem logical and fatherly, but now increasingly seems stubborn and unforgiving (which, I suppose, could still be 'fatherly', but I digress ... ).

And this isn't the first time Tubby's loyalty has landed him in rough waters. Last year, when things were so bad that Smith had to go back to grading his players in practice and then starting those who "graded out the best," the resulting starting 5 was possibly the worst crew collectively to start a Kentucky game in school history. It was certainly the least talented in a generation, with Woo at the center spot, Brandon Stockton and Patrick Sparks at the guards and former walk-on Ravi Moss and current senior Bobby Perry rounding out the frontcourt. No offense to any of them, but that team shouldn't have appeared together on the same court for Kentucky, much less start a game. And while the experiment was over rather quickly, it didn't appear to anyone I know that the kids got any message except 'my way or the highway.'

Sparks' case was the most damning, as the senior had a near-record starting streak going and despite a stretch of games where anyone watching could see the kid didn't have it -- from deep, on defense, with the ball -- Tubby seemed to be rewarding his transfer senior for his sacrifices, dedication to the fundamentals and hard work. The team suffered because of his playing during the stretch.

Ditto the exploits of former first-team whipping boy Saul Smith. The coach's second son endured the brutality of the UK fanbase with class and maturity. Saul's bonafides as a person were proven beyond doubt. What was less clear was why his father, or more damningly, his coach, couldn't see that Saul's best chance to succeed was not starting as the only viable point guard option. And while there were few other options available (JP Blevins was not exactly gunning for the job), some of that onus must fall on the elder Smith's shoulders since no point guard recruit wanted to come to UK and sit behind an inferior player who brought more "physicality" or some such coachspeak to the floor.

Rewarding players for loyalty and consistency is all fine and good, but when your ass is on the line, when the NCAA tournament is actually in doubt for the first time in almost 20 years, at what price loyalty?

Things are playing out that way again, it appears. Back to the wall, having lost 7 of 10 against ranked opponents, Tubby Smith went back to the drawing board. And what has he emerged with? Sheray Thomas, Bobby Perry and a lot of talk about 'changes.' Forgive Big Blue Nation if it's a little underwhelmed, Mr. Smith.

Faced with an unceasing criticism of his talent evaluation and increasingly his coaching decisions, Smith has decided to face down his critics with a "my way or the highway" plan again. And given he's a national title-winning coach with a career winning percentage only a handful of active coaches can even come close to, it's understandable he might feel he knows best.

But forgive us, Mr. Smith, if we aren't convinced. What it looks like to us is you've cornered yourself and your team and are determined to show that your way is the only way. And while I do not share the feelings of many of Kentucky's more ardent cyber-fans that all is lost, I do admit that your decision-making in the face of all the evidence leaves little other choice but to assume you're stubborn streak is winning.

Historically speaking, the only two seasons I can recall in which the coach acquiesced to the makeup of his team were the NCAA title season (1997-98) and the SuffoCats season (2002-2003). This isn't pointed out to imply that Smith needs to cave to the whims of the players, fans or media. He's the coach for a reason, and it's not to placate the masses, no matter how hard the masses cry.

But it would seem to be part of the job description for the coach to take in the facts of what he's got at his disposal and subsequently use that assemblage to its maximum potential. Instead, Smith seems determined -- more determined, even -- to fit square pegs into round holes because dammnit, those round holes are how we do things.

How very Denny Crum of him.

Tubby talked this week of possible changes to the tempo, of theoretical alterations to the starting lineup to get rebounding point guard Derrick Jasper into the game sooner. Fans' ears perked up, but don't expect them to believe Smith at this point. Like the political ploy of "floating" an idea to see what the reaction is, Tubby's talk-but-don't-act recent history has left Kentucky fans rather cynical, expecting to see more of the status quo.

Fans are expecting to see much more of Sheray Thomas and Woo getting more playing time for mediocre, but consistent, play than any talented youngster who might make mistakes, athletic and energizing mistakes.

At the risk of sounding like one of those malcontents I so often ascribe not to be, it's a real drag to be on the outside watching Smith grow increasingly rigid in his own brand of loyalty.