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Kentucky Basketball: Will (Historical) Youth Be Well Served?

"It's not whether you get knocked down, it's whether you get (back) up."

Vince Lombardi

With Kentucky now sitting at a disappointing 4-4 in the SEC (the 'Cats worst start to an SEC season since 1989-90), "getting knocked down" is certainly an apt description of the events which have transpired on the hardwood this conference season.  Whether it be a lack of late-game execution by Kentucky (Alabama & Ole Miss), the opponent taking full advantage of an opportunity (Florida & Ole Miss), the opponent physically manhandling and intimidating UK (Alabama & Georgia), or the 'Cats being knocked back on their heels by a foe playing its best game of the year (Ole Miss), UK has found itself on the short end of all four conference road games, and on the verge of being relegated to a 3rd, 4th, or 5th place finish in the SEC East.  Not the path most thought in the preseason this talented, yet painfully young team (more on that later), would take in John Calipari's second season.

And with the losses supplying no shortage of lessons to be learned, this Wildcat team has little time to show dividends borne out of the pain of defeat (as well as the pain of watching game tape).  Only eight regular season games remain, so the time is now to "get back up" and remind themselves, why, as a group, they were considered the top recruiting class in the nation.  

And there my friends, lies the rub.  Think about that above sentence for a moment -- "... and remind themselves, why, as a group, they were considered the top recruiting class in the nation."  The magnitude of that sentence, no, the historical magnitude of that statement, should not be lost on the fans of Kentucky or the UK coaching staff.  For this year's team, the 2010-2011 Wildcats, mark the first time in the history of the program that three freshmen have led a Kentucky team in scoring.

Terrence Jones (17.9 ppg), Brandon Knight (17.5 ppg), and Doron Lamb (13.8 ppg), all fresh-faced freshmen of note, not only lead the 'Cats in scoring, but they so dominate everything Kentucky does, if one was to take away even one of those players, this Kentucky team would be in the dark, grasping for a way out of an enveloping black hole.

To place some historical perspective on the youth of this year's club, consider this: Since 1973, when freshman regained varsity eligibility for the first time since 1949, UK has had only two freshmen lead the team in scoring; last year (John Wall), and in 1987 (Rex Chapman).  And in only 11 seasons since '73, a span of 38 years, has UK boasted a (team) top three scorer who was also a freshman.  And only once in Kentucky history, have two of the top three scorers on a squad been freshman (2010).  This year, all three top scorers are freshman (Yes, I know I've already written that, but it deserves being written again).  Not even last year's frosh dominated team can lay claim to that distinction -- If one remembers, junior Patrick Patterson was the team's third leading scorer at 14.3 points per game, behind Wall (16.7 points per game) and DeMarcus Cousins (15.1 ppg).

And one has to go back all the way to 1968 to find a UK team led in scoring by three first-year varsity members.  That 22-5 squad was led in scoring by Mike Casey, Dan Issel, and Mike Pratt, all sophomores.  In fact, during the freshman non-eligibility era (1948-1973), in only five years were the 'Cats led in the scoring department by a sophomore; The aforementioned Mike Casey in '68, Louie Dampier in '65, Cotton Nash in '62, Johnny Cox in '57, and Big Bill Spivey in 1950.  And in almost every case, the other two top scorers on those teams were juniors and/or seniors.

Young?  The 2011 'Cats are fetus-like when compared to other Kentucky teams.

One would think, with a roster so full of youth, and a roster so reliant on youth to provide scoring and leadership, that those who call UK their favorite team would practice patience a bit more liberally (me included), rather than throw our collective arms up in the air, asking the basketball gods a question I have asked at least a dozen times this season, "Why?!" 

Why throw that pass?  Why take that shot?  Why react timidly?  Why not be more assertive with the ball?  Why not go high on the pick?  Why not put a body on that guy?  Why lose to teams you should so clearly beat?

The answer's to the "Why's," my friends, lies in the individual birth certificates of the team members.  Kentucky's deficiencies are not only in the low post; for the most part, it's not a physical inadequacy that is holding this team back.  I would wager, if one added a single year to each current Kentucky player's experience, the 'Cats would win every SEC game they have so far lost, with the possible exception of the Georgia game.  What's the old coach's adage?  "The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores."  (Whoever came up with that one clearly didn't have to deal with the NBA sharks).  

So, the very serious question that remains to be answered is this: Can this team, so full of inexperience, get up off the mat, and regain the glory that brought them to Lexington in the first place?  Simply put, are they capable of getting back-up after being knocked down?

And make no mistake, losing three road games by two-points apiece, is getting emphatically knocked down.  The feeling of being so close, yet letting victory slip away, is unpleasant to any athlete who cares, and can possibly lead to a crisis of confidence, even in those whose reservoir of confidence is seemingly endless.  Furthermore, this team does not possess an abundance of positive traveling experiences to fall back on and say, "Oh, that's how we win on the road," or, "Oh, that's how we win close games."  Some call it demonstrated ability.  But, whatever name it goes by, this team is (so far) left to grab at short straws as they search for examples of how to win close (road) games.

But, the fact remains, the 'Cats are within an eyelash of being 20-2 instead of 16-6.  Four losses by a total of eight points.  That's pretty darn close, yet at times seems so unattainable.  But really, it's only for stretches of five, six, seven minutes that the 'Cats, on the road, lose focus, forget how to execute, and take quick shots, allowing the opponent to gain separation.  Solve that six minute lapse, and great things could happen.  But, continue to lose direction for chunks of clock, and the remainder of the season will be filled with what we've witnessed thus far; missed opportunities. 

In the athletic life of nearly every Kentucky player -- this experience of losing close games on the road, amid an environment whose populous places emphasis on nothing other than winning -- the last five weeks has been the first time they have been knocked down.  It is a feeling, a sensation, they are wholly unfamiliar with.  But, the 'Cats have been recipient of an uppercut to the chin, delivered courtesy of life on the road in the SEC.  

Will they get up?  I'm as anxious as anyone to discover the answer to that question.

Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!