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Kentucky Wildcats Basketball: The Misadventures of the Traveling Wildcats

Woe is us.  As usual, the Big Blue Nation runs up on some adversity and begins spinning so fast huge chunks of their basketball reality are flying off into the Outer Darkness.  Suddenly, John Calipari is the semi-nude emperor, and the many fans who were so sure that talent was the way to success are now swearing fealty to the empiricism deities that rule the mainstream sports media.

How incredibly droll all this is.  When the Kentucky Wildcats thrashed the Louisville Cardinals in the Poultry Palace, these same worthies were sure that Calipari was on the road to another 30-win season, was fully clothed in the trappings of the King of Kentucky, and had just handed Rick Pitino the reigns to his thoroughbreds and asked him to make sure they were fed before putting them up in the stable.

Then came the misadventures on the SEC byway.  Kentucky fans can perhaps be forgiven for jumping off the bandwagon when the team comes along and drops every single SEC road game to date but one.  To make matters worse, every one of those games had the maddeningly similar characteristics of being close, and execution errors in the latter parts of the game contributed strongly to each unfortunate result.  There was always something -- a technical foul, a bad call or a no-call, a 25-foot last second three-pointer, a missed rebound, you name it.   But in the end, they all look very similar not just on the record, but on tape as well.

So should the Big Blue faithful give up on this team?  After all, watching basketball, unlike the trials and tribulations of real life, is nothing more than entertainment.  It is completely optional.  Nobody makes you watch, and no Kentucky supporter is entertained when the Wildcats seem to be spiraling slowly down the drain.  It's hard to fault the non die-hard fans for abandoning ship, retiring their Blue and White attire for the year, and finding some really urgent spring cleaning to do in February and March when the Wildcats are playing.

We often fault those who, for whatever reason, abandon the team when the going gets tough.  We shouldn't though -- people have a right not to watch things that might bring them pain and unhappiness, and watching the highlights on Sports Center requires far less emotional investment than taking two hours out of your life to watch every excruciating moment in 1080p.

One thing should be mentioned, however -- this Kentucky team has been far from excruciating.  For most of the season, they have been very, very good.  At home and at neutral sites, they are one of the best teams in the nation, no question about it.  On the road, they have been strangely vulnerable and have looked far less impressive, even dysfunctional at times.  Most fans and pundits chalk all this up to lack of experience, but that explanation really doesn't wash, since they now have a ton of experience -- far more than last year, in fact -- when it comes to close games on the road.  Keep in mind, too, that they have no experience at all with close games at home -- there haven't really been any.

That's why explanations of chemistry problems, pure youth, gaping holes in the roster, thin bench, etc. really don't wash.  Teams with problems like that demonstrate symptoms of them not just on the road, but everywhere else.  No, the problems that this team is suffering from are not explained by any of these phenomena -- at least not yet.  Perhaps Florida will expose them on Saturday, or Vanderbilt the following week.  But if not, how do we conclude that this team is as badly flawed as many seem to think?

I can't think of a recent example of a team with this type of home-away schizophrenia.  Fatally flawed teams virtually always demonstrate those flaws at home as well as away although to a lesser degree, and despite the fact that Rupp Arena has a major home advantage, it is simply not that major.  There is no question at all that Vanderbilt has a stronger advantage, and yet they have lost not once, but twice, in Memorial Gym.

No, there is something else at work here, something not easily explained by lack of trust, or lack of leadership, or teamwork, or coaching, or a thin bench.  What it is is most likely psychological, like a 45% three-point shooter with a pure stroke shooting 60% from the free throw line.  Psychological afflictions do happen in college basketball, and in team sports everywhere, and not just to individuals on the team.  One merely has to recall one of the great sports movies of all time, The Natural, to see how this works.  The only good thing about this kind of affliction is that it tends to be temporary, at least most of the time.

What's to be done?  I have no idea.  Occasionally, there simply is no remedy -- the malady is fatal and the patient, in this case the team, simply expires.  A new team rises from the ashes and the dysfunction is cured by the passage of time.  In other cases, the patient recovers and goes on to achieve, or even over-achieve.

So who's to blame for all these crazy losses?  Some blame Coach Cal.  Others blame certain of the players, and people have pretty much made a case for all of them at one time or another.  But that is all a fool's errand.

There are many decisions made during a game that could have affected the outcome, most within the control of the team (given perfect 20/20 hindsight), but some not.  When you have so many chances to win, it's often tempting to pull out one or two as obvious mistakes by a particular player, for example the technical fouls on DeAndre Liggins at Vandy or Arkansas, or the failure of Darius Miller to pull the trigger at Florida. 

In truth, though, there are others that are just as big that nobody remembers, like quick jumpers from Brandon Knight early in the shot clock that seem to make no sense, the short-arm layup by Terrence Jones, the defensive rebound that got away from Josh Harrellson, or the missed layup by Liggins.  It really isn't productive to try to pin failure on one person, player or coach.  Failure in every one of these losses has been a team effort.

So to those of my fellow Wildcat fans who are still with me, I suggest we do something that I was taught never to do in my sales training -- live in hope.  Living in hope is a bad idea for salesmen and basketball teams, but it really isn't so bad for fans.  It means you have to tie up your entire emotional investment not in a proven commodity, but in a team that has ups and downs and even some schizophrenic behavior.  You can't logically defend your investment, because the team performance does not justify it.  So you live in hope.  You cut ties to reason, and records and statistics, and ... just hope.  Stop protecting your feelings with early surrender as though you can say, "I told you so" and feel superior when you are actually miserable inside.  Stop kidding yourself.  Just hope.

It's really not so bad.  Most of you are just like me and sacrificed your sanity on the altar of Kentucky basketball long ago.  What else have you got to lose?