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Kentucky Basketball: The Great Experiment

Kentucky coach John Calipari has made it official -- the Wildcats will be young from now on, and it is up to he and the coaching staff to solve the riddle of how to win national championships with multiple talented high-school freshmen in the starting lineup.  No apologies, no equivocating, no coach-speak.  Just straight talk.  To wit:

Calipari said the NBA Draft represented "a two-hour infomercial for our league and the University of Kentucky and will speak volumes for the next five years, maybe longer."

Calipari again said that UK was a "players-first program." He suggested that the publicity of having players drafted can attract future players to the program. "Players will win national championships," he said, if the UK coaches learn how to neutralize the experience gap against equally talented opponents deep in the NCAA Tournament.

The conventional thinking among college basketball coaches and observers is that this is not a good strategy, and it is one that is likely to backfire.  We have seen young teams go to Final Fours, and we have even seen freshmen led teams win NCAA championships.  To this point in history, however, it has been extremely rare to see freshman dominated teams win the NCAA championship, or get to the Final Four.

But Calipari has laid down his marker here, and no mistake.  He is accepting the challenge to do what many consider to be improbable, if not impossible.  The challenge he is facing, and accepting, is this:

"How are we going to deal with those last three (NCAA Tournament) games -- the Elite Eight and the next two -- with a young team like we had last year?" Calipari said on the Southeastern Conference coaches teleconference. "Because it looks as though we're always going to have a young team. That's the issue."

Finishing strong is something that no UK team has done since 1998, experienced or otherwise.  In the Tubby Smith years, most of his most successful teams were long on teamwork and experience and short on talent.  That did not produce a Final Four after 1998 (although he did come very close in 2005).  Calipari had arguably the most talented team in college basketball last year and was unable to do any better than his immediate predecessors post-1998 as far as the NCAA tournament is concerned.

So how does Calipari accomplish this daunting task?  To be frank, I really don't know.  Calipari has been an innovator in college basketball in the area of public relations and recruiting, and to some extent in coaching with his adoption of the Dribble Drive Motion offense.  But that isn't the problem that Coach Cal has identified with last year's team:

"We were just too young and started breaking down defensively," Calipari said. "How do we finish it off? Because we did everything else. We did everything short of those last couple games."

Based on this comment, the DDM won't help him, because offensively, according to him, is where the 'Cats started "breaking down."  I note for the record that it is very hard to reconcile that statement with the final game of the season versus the West Virginia Mountaineers in the national quarter-finals, where we see this partial box score:

WVU 73 38.5 10 29 34.4 10 23 43.5 23 34 67.6
UK 66 34.3 19 35 54.2 4 32 12.5 16 29 55.2

Hmm.  You hold a team to 38% defensively, you expect to win that game, n'est pas?  Also, what, pray tell, does 4/32 3-point shooting have to do with the defense Kentucky played?  Yes, a point can be made about allowing West Virginia to shoot 43% from the arc, but my recollection is that two more made three-pointers would have effectively erased that difference.

The bottom line here is that Calipari might be able to defend his comment based on the 3-point shooting, but little else.  Kentucky's interior defense was stout as always, and WVU made a few unconscious bombs that distended the 3-point stat.  I may not be a college coach, but I will take the position that it was our offense, not defense, that lost the WVU game.  That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Still, Calipari's point is not really wrong.  Defensive mistakes cost the 'Cats plenty, and the debate about which was more important is largely subjective.  Whether it is that the Wildcats defended the three poorly or they couldn't shoot straight, both failures have been attributed to their youth, and you would be hard pressed to make a compelling case against that argument.  Experience shows that young players lack poise, especially in high-pressure situations.

So somehow, Coach Cal must overcome this tendency and transfuse his incoming freshman class with ice water on offense and never-say-die determination on defense, and he must do it in a 12-week span.  Never let it be said that Calipari does not accept daunting challenges.

Strait Pinkie, writing for Opposing Views, had this observation:

I do worry a bit about how this conflict is going to play out. I have no concerns about it if Cal racks up the Final Fours and national titles quickly. If Cal goes two or three years with top recruiting classes but only Sweet 16’s and Elite Eight’s, I fear that his style will begin to frustrate ‘Cats fans.

Ironically, it was Tubby Smith’s inability or unwillingness to get top talent that disenchanted UK fans. It could be the exact opposite that does it for Calipari.

Indeed.  As much as most Kentucky fans enjoyed last year, at some not-too-distant point, flame-outs in the Elite Eight will begin to cost Calipari, if they happen regularly.  What sort of mix of success and failure will keep Kentucky fans happy?  I don't know, but writing as one, I would not be happy at all if five years from now UK had not hung banner #8.  At that point, the "Best Coach Never To Win A Championship" meme would become all there is out there, much as it was for Mike Krzyzewski back before he had his long run in the 1980's. 

No matter how you look at it, Coach Cal is on the clock, and it is ticking.