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Kentucky Wildcats Basketball: Foul Ball

I get back from my morning workout this morning and find this blog post by John Clay on top of my Twitter timeline.  It contains no less than four links to commentary about John Calipari's salty invective directed at Terrence Jones the other night during a close loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide.

My first reaction was, "Are we really still talking about Calipari's swearing on the sideline?"  Given the well-documented strong language of a number of great coaches, it almost boggles the mind that this lived two whole news cycles, even drawing a comment from an apparently distressed Wildcat fan to Larry Vaught that Calipari was "verbally [abusive]" toward his players.

The takeaway from this, though, seems to be rooted in the loss rather than an F-bomb or two.  I think it's fair to ask the question if we would be even talking about this if Kentucky had won the Alabama game, or more correctly, in what context?  When coaches jump on players and win the game in a dramatic comeback, it is a sign of great coaching and great inspiration.  But if you lose, it becomes "verbal abuse."

Calipari would have done well to temper his language, not just because he wound up inadvertently creating a distraction for the team, but because it's the right thing to do.  But beyond that, we have to question whether or not it was really effective, and the answer seems to be a qualified, "Yes."  Calipari rode Terrence Jones like Sea Biscuit the entire game, and Jones became more effective as the game wore on, even though it wasn't one of his best.

More after the jump.

Far be it from me to tell Coach Cal, a man who has won more games in the last five years than any coach in America, how to do his job.  For those who complain about salty language to kids, let me tell you that your sons and daughters who enter the U.S. Armed forces hear language from day one through separation that makes Calipari's tirade at Jones look like the Gettysburg Address in terms of urbanity.  How do I know this?  Personal f-ing experience.

So don't get on your condescending high-horse and act like it is somehow unconscionable for these poor 18-year old young men to hear the F-bomb dropped, maternal context or no.  It is a pure double-standard with nothing at all to recommend it.  Objection to harsh language on, "It's just not the right thing to do," grounds is certainly fair, but suggesting it somehow contributes to delinquency in a college basketball player is embarrassingly absurd and naive on many levels.  These are not "18-year old kids" -- they are young men who have reached the age of consent and are no longer children, even though we can't seem to resist characterizing them as as such when it suits our purposes.

It's funny how we forget the fun and games Coach Cal used to have with DeMarcus Cousins last year.  How many of you remember the time last year when Cousins and Calipari got into a literal shouting match on the bench, and Cousins either left or was ordered to the locker room to cool off?  I'll just bet you a that conversation was Not Safe For Work.  Yet somehow, the narrative was different.  Why?  Kentucky was winning every game.

So what's wrong with the Wildcats right now?  Is it "abuse" by Calipari, or is it that Terrence Jones is selfish?  I am confident that it is the latter, although Jones is not the only guilty party.  These young guys have still not embraced Calipari's concept of basketball.  They still believe, and I'm talking mostly about the freshmen, that they are the best player on the team and that they need to take over from time to time.  You see it every time Terrence Jones becomes the place where possessions go to die.  You see it every time Brandon Knight takes the ball into the front court and pulls up for a 3-pointer without making a pass.  You see it every time Doron Lamb takes the ball too deep into the paint.

These young men want to score.  That's the problem, and there is no easy solution.  In order for a team to be great, they must suppress their desire to score, their desire to take the team on their back, their desire to be the "go-to" guy, and become a part of something bigger and more successful.  I'm sure that each player on this year's team will tell you that's exactly what they are trying to do.  But in truth, they aren't.  You can tell by the way they fail to huddle after a foul, by the way they sometimes don't even look in the direction of the other guy for an entire possession.  They don't think they are being selfish, but they refuse to give up on the idea that nobody is better than them.

The truth is, though, that lots of people are better than them at the game of college basketball.  That's because right now, Kentucky is playing a very good version of AAU ball, where it's "all about me getting mine."  The players this year have simply not been willing to sacrifice themselves for the team, and by "the players" I mean primarily the three freshmen.  There is no doubt whatever that DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller, and Josh Harrellson have sacrificed themselves, but the other three are still legends in their own minds.  This is obvious, and the chemistry from last year's team is transparently lacking this year.

But even the upperclassmen are falling prey to this pervasive "Me-ism."  Josh Harrellson in the Alabama game was wide open after a Terrence Jones steal under the basket.  Now, we all know that Josh can't jump over the Shelbyville phone book, but here he is trying a two-handed monster dunk that caromed off the back iron and ultimately into that dark place known as "margin of defeat."  A real team player would have just reached up and put it into the basket, but noooo... Harrellson had to send a message.  He did -- how to see a basketball game die the death of 1,000 cuts.  Josh, a good shooter, missed thee of four free-throw attempts -- margin of defeat.  He went for a tip-in with one hand and missed when he should have used two -- margin of defeat.  The list goes on, and for others as well.

None of these guys understands that every possession represents a tiny victory or defeat, and it is the sum of those micro-games within the game that make all the difference.  Each free throw, each offensive rebound, each steal, each open jumpshot is pure, unalloyed gold. 

These guys treat them like wooden nickels.