I think we now know who and what this Kentucky Wildcat team is. We do not know what it portends for the future, or how much it will change from here on out, but the young Wildcats have now clearly defined themselves in the crucible of the SEC.
As with all basketball teams, this team has been developing it's personality throughout the year. As John Calipari has been fond of saying (more or less) in the last week or so, we are what our body of work says we are. This week has further informed that body of work to a degree that should give us both trepidation, and confidence. What we will try to do now is consider a few of those noteworthy characteristics.
But before we begin this exercise, let me point out a couple of things. First of all no team is ever going to be perfect. That shouldn't be necessary to point out, but let's face it -- over the past few weeks I have seen the madness in the eyes of some Kentucky fans, the madness that anything not positive about the team is negative and wrong. I also know very well from whence the madness comes. It comes from four years of college basketball starvation, and having to put up with play that we knew was inferior. It comes from players that were not up to Kentucky's historic standards. It comes from having to live with the taunts of rivals and foes, embarrassing loss margins, home losses in front of listless crowds. It comes from wanting to forget all of that.
The madness is easy to explain, and hard to put aside. It welds the Big Blue shades to your face, so that even an act of will won't remove them. It's tough to overcome, but fortunately, it is just temporary. A few good seasons and it will recede like the mammoth snows we have suffered in the Bluegrass this year recedes before the warmer weather. Right now, however, we have many fans afflicted with the madness. I ask you to try your best to put it aside as we continue, and if you just can't, remember this -- we are all fans and want this team to win every game. Just keep that in mind.
What we will do now is list the undesirable, and desirable characteristics of the 2009-2010 Kentucky Wildcats.
This Kentucky team rarely plays to their ability. UK has not played to their ability very many times this season on both sides of the ball. That's not uncommon in college basketball, but it is also less common for an NCAA champion to have this affliction. Consider last year's North Carolina team, who almost always played near the best of their ability. Florida's teams of a few years back also had this characteristic.
But not all NCAA champions did. The 2004 Connecticut Huskies team also failed to play to their ability a lot, as did the 2003 Syracuse Orange team. There are other examples as well, but the point of this is that teams that do not play to their ability can still win it all.
This Kentucky team is a reluctant defensive team. This is a characteristic that would give you the impression it is changing, but usually it takes an intervening year. Playing defense in college basketball is something of an acquired taste -- virtually none of the superstar players that UK has on its team this year have ever had to play defense, and they never really wanted to. But unlike AAU basketball, you cannot win consistently in college basketball by simply trying to outscore your opponent.
Everyone should recognize that UK has defended extremely well in the last two games compared to most of their earlier efforts, but two games does not a season make. This team is still reluctant on defense, but to their credit, they now see that it is necessary to win.
This Kentucky team has a volatile nature. DeMarcus Cousins' emotionalism has been a subject of much national debate, but the reality is that Eric Bledsoe has been in as many scrapes as Cousins this year that came close to hurting the team. This characteristic, fortunately, has not spread to the other players on the team, but the danger of a blow-up is always present in a Kentucky game, so much so that ESPN announcers in particular seem anxious to see a UK player ejected for almost any reason.
This is unfortunate, both for the announcers and the team, and Calipari probably needs to get a grip on this (and the announcers as well, frankly). Coach Cal is famous for allowing players a long leash, and even though that has worked out better, on average, than otherwise, it isn't a perfect strategy.
This Kentucky team is careless with the basketball. We had all hoped, by this point in the season, that UK would learn to value each possession, but that hope has been in vain. Kentucky has found ways to turn the ball over that even my vivid imagination could not come up with, and that has made many of their opponents much more competitive than they otherwise would have been.
As we have seen from UK teams in the recent past, ballhandling problems simply don't go away over the course of one season. If a team handles the ball carelessly in December, they will handle it carelessly in February and March.
This Kentucky team has a tendency to spit the bit. Calipari has worked very hard to try to get this team under control, with only moderate success. I have seen Cal plead with these guys to feed the post, to value the basketball, to play under control, and I have seen these young men repeatedly reject that advice.
As I mentioned earlier, Calipari is famous for a long leash, and these young players have used all of it and continue to try to drag out more and more. If they ever learn to listen and apply the coach's instructions, this team could become scarier than they already are.
- This Kentucky team does not know how to make the easy play. I have never, ever seen a team try so hard to make every play look like rocket science. Fortunately, many of these guys are the equivalent of basketball geniuses, so they can get away with this, but it is a disturbing characteristic.
Of course, this team has some very desirable characteristics as well, characteristics that will serve them well going forward into tournament season.
This Kentucky team does not crack under pressure. It is axiomatic in college basketball that young teams will collapse under enough stress, and start running around at random trying to make one-on-one plays and forgetting the team concept.
This UK team does not do that. It took a Herculean effort by South Carolina in a sold-out gym when UK was not playing their best to get a narrow victory. Since then, all UK has done is refused to lose at an insane (literally, and demonstrably) Mississippi St. Bulldogs game in Starkville, and in and equally excited (but fortunately non-deranged) Vanderbilt Commodores game.
Kentucky arguably should have lost both games, but they did not, and they didn't because they believed they would win. Among all the characteristics I have delineated in this piece, this one is singular. It is the most important, the one that will make the difference. This team believes in themselves like no other I have ever seen at UK since 1998.
This Kentucky team has absolutely no fear. I have never seen, in many years, gyms as wild as we have seen in Kentucky games this year. I have never once seen any fear in the eyes of any of these players. Kentucky never seems to come out too flat, or too up. They have a very professional approach to the game, which is not the same as saying that they have a professional attitude during the game. But this team is fearless in their approach to each contest, and is not intimidated by crowds, players, or adversity.
This Kentucky team does not give up on team basketball when the chips are down. While John Wall does have a tendency to try to take the game over, he does not forget about the rest of the team. MSU was a classic example when he found Bledsoe in the corner for a runner near the end, and Patterson on the baseline for the game-tying jumper.
One of the biggest mistakes teams make when they are behind is allowing their best player to try to take the game on his shoulders. UK does not do that, and that is one reason they have been so successful in close games. John Wall may wind up taking the last shot, but if so, it's because he thinks there is no better shot available.
This Kentucky team crashes the offensive glass. When the game is on the line, you can bet on two things -- one, John Wall will touch the ball on every possession, and two, the odds of an opponent getting any kind of rebound are smaller than they normally are. Kentucky crashes the boards even harder when they are behind than they do otherwise, and that is a big reason for their success.
This Kentucky team defends like crazy in close basketball games. Even if they are a reluctant defensive team overall, they know that you can't win close ones without it. I don't know if you've noticed, but UK has played some of their best defense when the game is tight and the baskets come hard. They focus more, they challenge more, and they absolutely make scoring a nightmare for the opposition. If they defended like that all the time, there would be no doubt who the #1 team is.
Winning is not just important to this team, it is genuinely their only expectation. They go into every game completely single-minded of purpose -- to win the basketball game. And they have. Whatever the foe. Wherever the venue.
Winning is as much an attitude as it is skill and execution. Kentucky this year has done a very good job, especially for a team so young, at learning not to let the next play be affected by the last. There are some exceptions, and some of them are better at it than others, but these guys, as a team, have done a good job of ignoring the little devil that sits on your shoulder and tells you not to shoot that wide-open three because you missed the last two. Calipari deserves a ton of credit for that.
This Kentucky team is very well coached. Calipari doesn't get nearly enough credit for finding ways to blend in the old and the new, the first-rounder with the European player, and managing the egos of the highly touted. We have seen Calipari do this before at Memphis, but it is even more remarkable when you see it up close and personal. The Kansas Jayhawks have had run-ins, but despite their youth, this Kentucky team has avoided distractions both on and off the basketball court. They are just winning, baby, and doing it the right way.
Calipari's X's and O's have impressed me this year also. He doesn't have a reputation as a great bench coach, but I think the record of this team calls that perception into question.
I have been watching Kentucky basketball a long time, and right now, this is Final Four team on the cusp of a genuine national championship contender. Some of the negatives that UK possesses must be minimized for them to challenge for the national championship this year, but all those things are well within their reach. Even as I write this, Kentucky is playing the best defense of the year, which was a major issue earlier, and something they are reluctant to do.
So can UK grasp the brass ring this year? Certainly they can. They have everything it takes except for experience, and fortunately, this team has managed to develop the characteristics of a more experienced team in under four months. How much further down that path they can travel in the short time left to them this season is what will determine their ultimate fate.