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Kentucky Wildcat Basketball: Eight for Eight

Are Kentucky's chances of cutting down the nets in New Orleans a slam dunk?
Are Kentucky's chances of cutting down the nets in New Orleans a slam dunk?

As the sun rises on yet another Kentucky basketball season, giving birth to the same questions and discussions that take place every year in anticipation of what is to come, the urgency of the dawning season suddenly takes center stage.  For this year, what is at stake is a very real chance to take home the ultimate prize, which leads us to ponder (according the Wildcat Fan Handbook): Are the 'Cats good enough to make the Final Four?  Are the 'Cats good enough to beat North Carolina, Louisville, Kansas and a host of other non-conference opponents?  How many SEC games will this team lose, if any?  Will John Calipari find a way to mold his group of talented freshmen into a cohesive, unselfish team?  But this year, more so than any other year in recent memory, the primary and most pressing question on the lips of the Big Blue Nation is -- Can this team win it all?

Will this mixture of youth, experience, and yes, a tad of depth -- Calipari's most "deeply blended" UK team to date -- find its way to New Orleans and close the deal for the first time since 1998?  Not lacking in preseason hoopla, this squad is adorned with a preseason No. 2 national ranking, and college basketball scribes from around the nation are giving serious credence to this team's chances of cutting down the nets in the Big Easy.  But do the 2011-2012 Wildcats truly have the right stuff?  The righteous stuff it takes to win the biggest games on the biggest stage under the brightest lights.  Something the previous two Kentucky teams came tantalizingly close to accomplishing, before falling short of the ultimate net cutting celebration.

What eight requirements does it take, and does Kentucky possess the eight to hang banner No. 8?  Find out after the jump.

Requisites for a Championship

1.) In today's college basketball landscape, it takes at least two future NBA players on the roster to win a title (every team to win the championship since at least 2000 has had a minimum of two future NBA players) -- Kentucky seems to have this requisite in spades.  With Terrence Jones, Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Doron Lamb mortal locks to play-for-pay, and Kyle Wiltjer and Darius Miller likely to get their chance to perform in the NBA, this UK team is loaded with pro talent. 

2.) Which leads to the next indispensable need, particularly for this team -- The need to sacrifice.  Although a team may be oozing with terrific talent, will that talent be willing to sacrifice their individual need for accolades, for the betterment of the team?  Will Davis, Teague, MKG, Lamb, Jones and the rest be willing to sacrifice minutes, shots, and the accompanying ink, because it makes the team better?

In order for this requirement to be filled, the team members must fully buy-in to the company line being sold to them by their coach, which is: it's not about "me," it's about the team, more-so, it's about the team winning.  When every player believes that giving up personal glory for the sake of a championship is an attainable goal -- an, it-will-take-more-than-just-me-to-win-a-title, mindset -- they will find it much easier to buy and believe in the bill of (championship) goods John Calipari is peddling. 

3.) A direct result of a willingness to sacrifice leads to the next necessity -- Team chemistry.  With college basketball players being around one another for so many hours a day, between practice, leisure time at the Lodge (in UK's case), flights, pre-game meals, study hall, etc, liking one another plays an important role in how they mesh on the basketball court.  Sadly, Kentucky basketball fans have witnessed up close and personal what a talented team with poor chemistry is capable of producing.  And it ain't pretty (see: 2002's Team Turmoil, and 2006's 22-13 record).

Do they have to be best buds?  No, but they must at least like and respect one another off the court in order to reach their full potential on the playing floor.

4.) When it comes to on-the-court performance, championship teams have great guard play.  Kentucky, with the return of shooting guard Doron Lamb, seems set with a hot-shooting "2," but the unfortunate downside gives us yet another freshman point guard in Marquis Teague (not that there's anything wrong with that).  The responsibilities of a point guard are far-reaching and carry with them great implications. For example, the point guard is responsible for getting the team into the right offensive play; the point guard is responsible for distributing the ball in a manner conducive to scoring, while at the same time limiting turnovers; the point guard is responsible for deciding when to shoot, when to drive, and when to dish; the point guard is responsible for getting the team into the right defense; the point guard is responsible for defensive ball pressure, creating an uncomfortable, disruptive playing environment for the opponent.

That is why, in the modern history of the NCAA basketball tournament, precious few freshman point guards have led their team to a National Championship.  Sometimes it's the pressure caused by the enormity of the stage, particularly when the stage is host to a survive and advance contest involving a nationally ranked opponent with CBS in the house, that rattles the nerves and negatively impacts a freshman point guard's decision-making.  Sometimes it's the freshman point guard going up against a junior or senior who's been there, done that, which causes the freshman to play absent the confidence and skill he normally possesses.  Whatever the reason, freshman point guards do not have a championship winning track record in the NCAA tourney.  But, the freshman point guard quandary is a challenge Calipari has encountered before, and hopefully the lessons learned from previous losses have given Cal the wisdom he needs to send his frosh into battle ready to rumble instead of tumble.

5.) Balanced scoring is next on the docket of greatness.  For every Danny Manny and the Miracles (Kansas 1988), there are dozens of star players like Pete Maravich, and Larry Bird -- Great players who dominated their team's scoring column, and never won a title.  Seldom is a team ultra-successful when reliant on one or two players for the bulk of the scoring.  Simply put, having only one or two serious scoring threats makes a team easy to guard, and easy to guard makes for a rocky Big Dance road, especially in the age of ubiquitous scouting. 

Kentucky, with a roster full of scorers at every position, seems sated with players able to fill up the basket.  Stop Terrence Jones, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will slash you to death; stop Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller and Kyle Wiltjer will rain a parade of 3s until mercy is begged for; stop this guy, and that guy will bury the dreams of the less talented.

6.) In this one-and-done world, balance plays another role in a team's chances for a championship -- Having a balanced roster.  There simply must be a mixture of veteran performers who have lived through the road wars and lose-and-go-home tourney formats, to go along with the litany of talented freshmen contributors.

The older, experienced players will many times bring a sense of calm to the proceedings, a sense of things are never as bad as one thinks, and conversely (and perhaps most importantly), a sense of things are never as good as one thinks; a don't-get-too-high-or-too-low mentality.  A veteran player can believably relate to the young guns the need to focus, regardless of opponent, regardless of score.  A veteran player can believably relate to his younger teammates the need to keep one's head, even while those around him are losing theirs.  A veteran player can believably relate to his youthful comrades to not mind the harsh words coming from the coach, but do pay attention to the reason why the coach is screaming in his general direction. 

Veteran players can also play a huge role in game preparation, for no matter how many times the coach attempts to prepare his team for battle, telling his charges how tough the road to glory is, when those same words come from a teammate who has lived through the carnage, the message often-time takes on more significance.

With senior Darius Miller, and super sophs Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones, the kiddie 'Cats should have plenty of player wisdom to fall back on once the going gets tough.

7.) I strictly adhere to the words of the late Al McGuire -- It doesn't take a great coach to win the National Championship, but all the great ones have won it.  I would, though, add one caveat to McGuire's theory -- It takes solid coaching to win a title.

Recognizing mismatches, and putting players in a position to take advantage; adjusting, both offensively and defensively, to what one's opponent is wanting to do, or, not adjusting, instead imposing one's will on the foe; knowing when to stem the tide of an opponent's run with a time out, and knowing when to "let it ride;" knowing how to maximize a player's skill in any given situation; and thoroughly preparing his team for the opponent, all of this and more figure into how a team performs in any given game.   And all of this, this coaching acumen, is magnified once March rolls around. 

Pity the coach who doesn't know his team come tournament time, for knowing one's team, and one's team's capabilities, both individually and as a unit, is the key to successfully coaching at the championship level.

If nothing else, John Calipari proved last season -- in UK's wins over Louisville (he had Rick Pitino scratching his head in search of answers), as well as Ohio State and North Carolina in the NCAA tourney -- he knows his way around a clipboard.  I don't think there is any coach in the country I would rather have at Kentucky than Cal.

8.) And finally, the most elusive of the eight requirements ... lady luck. It takes a little luck, a little good fortune along the way, for a team to win a championship, specifically, it takes a little luck to beat six good-to-great teams one after the other.

A bounce of the ball, an advantageous whistle, the twist of a hot opponent's ankle; the luck dispensed by the lady can make losers out of champions, or winners out of those lucky enough to befriend her.  Which will it be for the 'Cats?  I don't know, but it's sure going to be fun finding out.

Enjoy the season Kentucky fans, it should be a year to remember.

Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!