One thing that is really different about this team from last year's team is that they are much more reserved. While we do see the occasional 3-point eyeglass sign and some emotion on a dunk, what we see all too rarely from this team is the pure, unadulterated joy we used to see from the 2009-10 Wildcats.
That lack of emotion, I think, is partially responsible for the sudden drop in confidence this team has displayed in itself. It's hard to be happy when you are worried something bad will happen, and these guys clearly are finding ways to exacerbate, particularly in their own minds, the shortcomings of the team. This negative thinking appears to be metastasizing into a fear of losing.
Somehow, this cycle of worry has to be broken and the pure joy of basketball restored. I don't mean a license to fire away bad shots, or start hot-dogging with no-look passes into traffic and such. I am talking about the sharply executed play, the good screen that frees a shooter, the pick-and-roll executed to perfection, the swift crash of the offensive glass that results in the tip-jam, the solid trap that generates the steal. Nothing fancy, nothing spectacular, just the pure exhilaration of razor-sharp execution both offensively and defensively that makes teammates love what they are doing together.
The Last year's team had it. Many teams in the 1950's and 1960's had it. The 1996 team had it. The Suffocats had it.
Will this team ever find it, or will their joy be gradually obscured by the darkness of the fear that has crept into their thinking? Losing should never be feared, it should be rejected as the enemy of good basketball and good living, which it always is. Kentucky this year has not found that spark, that smile, that "we aren't losing because we won't allow ourselves to lose" attitude that last year's team embodied. As a result, a fear of losing is beginning to paralyze them at critical times.
I love this team, but I worry about them. They must not allow fear to overwhelm their joy. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. Those of you familiar with the Dune novels by Frank Herbert will recognize this as part of the Bene Gesserit litany against fear, a cornerstone of a way of thinking that enables adherents to reject the paralysis and confusion fear brings.
The Wildcats must reject any fear of losing. It was evident in game at Vanderbilt with the two late turnovers. It was evident last night at the end of the game when Kentucky broke down again and again. Fear clouds the mind, makes players forget their assignment, makes them try to do things which fly in the face of the plan -- like DeAndre Liggins trying to steal the ball from Jeffery Taylor rather than fouling him like he was supposed to in Nashville.
Fear doesn't just slow you down, it paralyzes and confuses you, and when you are like that, joy becomes impossible. Coach Cal must impress upon these young men that basketball is not life and death, even at Kentucky. It is supposed to be fun, it is supposed to be triumphant, and most of all, it is definitely not supposed to generate fear.
This team should forget about losing. They should focus on playing well, and having fun. As soon as they do, the wins will take care of themselves.