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Tarheels astern, Hoosier's dead ahead. Damn the torpedoes ...

The day after North Carolina, I am not happy.

It isn't that Kentucky did not compete hard -- they did.  Billy Gillispie said so, and if they played hard enough to please him, what can I offer?  In fact, I agree with him that Kentucky played very hard.  Unfortunately, they didn't play well.

My mind is in conflict.  I hate losing to North Carolina.  I hate it a lot, and losing four times in a row to them makes it impossible for me to actually enjoy any progress Coach Gillispie may see in the team.  I'm sorry, coach, but I hate losing to the Tarheels, and we haven't known victory over them in four long years.  The part of my mind that hates to lose to the Chapel Hill elitists makes me angry and frustrated.  Yes, it seemed inevitable, but since when does proud Kentucky bow willingly to a bitter foe?  Not in my lifetime.  Fortunately for my sanity, we didn't bow willingly this time, either.  But bow we did.

But then, reason takes over and I have to look at what is now behind us.  We have lots of excuses for losing that game -- injuries, a talent deficit, starting walk-ons, new coach, new system, etc.  I hate excuses.  I hate them even worse when you can't actually ignore or reject them as facile and unsportsmanlike.  I am as guilty as the next guy or gal of leaning on them a bit too much.

Let's face it, folks, we compete with the team we have, not with the team we want.  Nobody wants to have to start Mark Coury and Michael Porter.  Coury is a walk-on with tremendous heart and work ethic, but certainly does not possess the athletic or basketball skills to take Kentucky to the promised land.  Maybe he can develop some of them, but likely not enough to be a starter on a team that could compete at the highest level.  I never say never, but I must say rarely.  Michael Porter is a different story -- he was recruited to be a back-up point guard for his toughness, shooting ability, and savvy.  But he is not yet ready, and may never be ready, to log starter's minutes on a team that will actually compete at the highest level.  Ty Lawson left him in the dust several times yesterday, and Mark Coury was unable to deliver anything other than a big body underneath.

So what is the truth about this Kentucky team?  Did they really show us enough yesterday to hope they may actually be competitive with the top 25 teams in the land this year? 

I say no.  I am an optimist, but we have to look at what we have seen.  North Carolina is more talented, but that will be the case for them against almost every team they play this year.  BYU is no more talented overall than Kentucky, but they did much more against North Carolina on a neutral floor than Kentucky was able to do against them in Rupp Arena.  Gillispie may be pleased, but I look at the team and wonder what will have to happen to make us into a BYU, let alone a North Carolina.

How many years will it take for Crawford and Bradley to figure out that you can't take the game into your own hands whenever you feel like it?  How many years will it take them to learn to value possessions?  How many years will it take for them to learn how to be part of a  team effort, and not cogs that seem to be running in their own little machine?  This is not a knock on their ability, it's a knock on their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the team.  Bradley will do so one game, then revert back to form.  His missing of a team meeting is an example of a larger problem, the idea that he places himself not only above the team, but above anything else.  This is not what Kentucky fans expect from their players.  This is not what a leader does.

Crawford?  It's his world, and we're just living in it.  It shows every time he plays.  He will show you signs, like yesterday, where he actually passed the ball off a dribble drive to an open shooter.  He did it twice, at least, and I have to say I have never ever seen him do that before.  But when you look at the game as a whole, it was just more of the same from Joe -- missed defensive assignments, taking plays off, trying to make offensive moves from a position of weakness resulting in turnovers.  In other words, you can put lipstick on a pig, but that doesn't turn it into a supermodel.  Who wound up getting floorburns yesterday?  Not Joe.  It never is.  How many charges did Crawford take?  I'm not hating on Joe, I love that he is trying -- but can he get there from here?  That's what I'm asking.  Forget the apology that "these are just kids" for a second and look at them in a team context -- can he get there from here?

Patrick Patterson is the only player I have seen so far this year who is actually delivering for the team, and I am not talking about skills or numbers.  I am talking about attitude and mental toughness.  He never takes a play off.  He shares the ball.  He demands it at the right time.  He does the dirty work.  He defends every ... single ... possession.  He hates to lose, and shows that loathing in an unmistakable mask of anger and frustration.  When was the last time Crawford or Bradley showed us, even a little bit, how much they hate to lose, and how proud they are to wear the Kentucky uniform?  Remember Chuck Hayes?  When the team lost, brothers and sisters, you always knew Chuck was not happy.  Crawford and Bradley?  Not so much.  One attitude shows leadership, the other does not.  I don't think I need to tell you which is which.  Making triangles with your hands is not leadership.

This team is soft.  It is selfish -- not in a ball-hog kind of way, but in a sacrifice kind of way.  Too few of our best players are willing to sacrifice anything for team success, apparently even to the extent of being on time for a team meeting or staying awake during a film session.  Yes, we have seen this before, but never on our better teams, and it isn't as if this team can get by on talent.

Was this game an improvement?  Maybe a little.  Do I suddenly feel like we will be fine this year?  No, buddy -- not even.  Kentucky has not found either the cohesion or the consistency of effort to succeed this year.  These guys still look like puzzle pieces that don't belong in the same puzzle, and as long as this is true, success will be difficult and fleeting.  I have seen many articles today expressing optimism, but this isn't one, at least not the kind of optimism I have seen elsewhere.  My Big Blue shades have to come off for awhile, lest I be trapped forever in an unreality that we Kentucky fans really shouldn't be living in.  I'm not saying I'm going all negative on the Cats -- far from it.  But honesty demands that we face what we see, not what we wish.  What we see now is a team that is not ready to be even a good team, let alone compete at the highest level.  I know they will get better, but to get where they need to be, there has to be a fundamental change, 95% of it mental, that has yet to occur.

So I'm calling for a change of leadership.  It's time for Ramel Bradley to become the Executive Officer, and Patrick Patterson to take over as Captain of the USS Wildcat.  I know I am asking a lot, and Patterson may not be willing to take the reigns of leadership of the winningest program in history at such a tender age, and Bradley may not be willing to surrender his authority.  Maybe Gillispie is unwilling to demote a senior and elevate a freshman.  Nevertheless, that is what must happen if Kentucky is to maximize its potential this year.  Ramel Bradley cannot get us there.  He has proven it more than often enough for me. 

It's time, freshman.  Take the mantle you have earned by deeds in your short tenure, rather than inherited by longevity.  Join Gillispie on the bridge, and take your rightful place as the leader of this team.  It will be hard, and you will face opposition from within and without.  But just as the cream always rises to the top in a bottle of fresh milk, you must face the reality of nature.  You are ready for leadership, Patrick -- take the conn.