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Kentucky Basketball: The Needle and the Damage Done

I've seen the needle and the damage done;
A little part of it in everyone;
But every junkie's like a setting sun ...

--Neil Young, Needle and the Damage Done


For the first time ever, Kentucky finds itself in the position of potentially watching five players leave the team early to play professionally, presumably in the NBA.  This has now been mostly made official by UK, with the exception of Patrick Patterson -- his mother told Kentucky Sports Radio that Patrick will take a week or two to make his final decision, so it isn't fait accompli in his case quite yet.

For those of us who have been following the Kentucky program for many years, this is a novel development.  UK has been a long time without a first-rounder in the draft, let alone up to five.  The departure of 75% of our minutes and 80% of our scoring from an Elite Eight season must be gnawing at the bones of Wildcat fans everywhere.

Of course, there are those who want to think of Kentucky as a junkie, addicted to winning on one-and-done talent.  Let them, they are wrong and they don't care about being right.  Kentucky is addicted to good college basketball, whether it be through one-and-done's or guys like the Suffocats, very few of whom made a splash in the NBA and most of whom stayed all four years.  That's the reality, and if that is an addiction, I am proud to have that monkey on my back.

Predictably, the love from the sportswriters and bloggers is just beginning to come in.  Welcome to the Brave New Kentucky.  I don't know about you, but I thoroughly enjoyed this season and these players, and if they are all good enough to get drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft, I wish them all Godspeed, and share in their hopes and dreams for success.  Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat.

As you might expect, this will only enable the unethical and loudmouthed Bob Knight.  I didn't hear about this anywhere, but Earl Cox of the Voice Tribune has it memorialized for us:

Knight, as usual, took off after the University of Kentucky. Oh, he didn’t mention UK and coach John Calipari by name, but he didn’t have to. Everyone listening knew exactly who Knight was talking about when he said, "One-and-dones are garbage. And the NCAA should put a stop to it."

Of course, the "one-and-dones" have nothing whatever to do with the NCAA, and whether Knight knows that or not is irrelevant -- he should know it.  It is his responsibility as a sports commentator to know his facts before leveling this type of assault.  My take is that he just doesn't care, as long as he gets to aim his high-and-mighty shotgun mouth at UK.

Earl goes on to worry about the players who are taking their leave finishing the year in good academic standing, and although I believe they all will, it is a worthwhile concern.  But I think that Calipari will make darn sure that they do, because the consequences will be not just to the UK team, but to his own reputation, which is hardly glowing in the eyes of ... well, nearly everyone but UK fans, justified or not.

So should we worry about this mass exodus, dear brother and sister of the Big Blue Nation?  I don't think so, and I'll give you my reasons:

  • As I said before, this season is an anomaly.  The 2009 recruiting class was chock full of one-and-done talent, and that is just unusual.  You see it every few years, but it isn't a year-in and year-out thing.
  • From what I have seen, the vast majority of players that UK is involved with this year are not good enough to leave after one year.  I think we can get used to seeing one and perhaps two players leave early per year.  That's just the reality of Calipari's recruiting philosophy.  This year, as I keep saying, is not normal.
  • UK will not be as good next year as this.  This is a prediction, not a fact, but based on what I have seen of the potential incoming players, UK will be very good (Top 10-25) in 2010-11, but if things work out like I believe they will, we will be looking at another really good shot at a championship in 2011.
  • The recruiting of players like Stacy Poole, who are clearly not one year players, is how Coach Cal will build the experience base necessary to go along with the young talent.  Our class situation right now is unbalanced (assuming the 5 players do leave) -- 3 juniors, a sophomore and a senior next year with up to 8 freshmen.  As we begin to retain more players from each class, this will give us a better mix of classes and stagger departures.  Once again, this points up the unusual nature of this class.
  • Don't give up on Calipari's philosophy after one unusual year.  If we can put up with Billy Gillispie's under-achievement for two years, surely we can give a guy a chance who got us to the Elite Eight in his very first try.
  • We have to trust these young men to finish their classwork and leave in good standing.  If they fail to do so, we can be critical then.  For now, let's give them the benefit of the doubt.

Next year will be a "starting over" thing, but it will be just as exciting for all that.  You know UK is going to have great talent, and I am telling you (and you can believe me or not) but more of it will be sticking around for another bite or two at the apple.

None of us wanted to see this mass exodus happen.  We have become emotionally attached to these players (just as we should) and they have given us so many great moments that you hate the idea that you won't get to see them play together again.  You chafe over the fact that if they did come back, UK would be a prohibitive favorite to win their eighth National Championship, and it galls you that the brass ring is so near, yet so impossibly far given the realities of college basketball today.

It's a tough pill to swallow, but swallow it we must.  There will be a surprise or two, I expect, and hopefully more good ones than bad.  This has been a magical season.  Let's put our disappointment behind us and get behind these fine young men as they go forth to chase their dream.

Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat.