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Kentucky Wildcat Basketball: Play hard or go home

My Christmas gift to the 2012-2013 Kentucky Wildcats is a tough love look at the 'Cats' performance thus far. Not for the faint of heart, or those wearing big blue goggles, this honest evaluation of the Wildcats paints a picture of a team lacking in consistent effort, leaving great play out of reach.

John Calipari has help coming.
John Calipari has help coming.
Andy Lyons

Every season for the last three-plus years, Kentucky head coach John Calipari has had to deal with team issues related to the youth of his squads. Coaching almost exclusively freshman and sophomores carries with it burdens not associated with leading experienced, veteran teams. Because of Calipari's dedication to bringing in the absolute best players in America, to perform for UK, and additionally due to the NBA's age restrictions, Cal is required, on a yearly basis, to re-teach Major College Basketball 101.

From how to properly play defense, to the intricacies and possibilities of a well executed pick-and-roll, Cal and his staff spend more time than most basketball coaches, teaching the same philosophies and fundamentals, year-after-year, to the program's (mostly) new group of players.

But before this season, before this team, Calipari seldom had the need to consistently preach hard play to his squad. Sure, the occasional player would receive a tongue lashing for trotting up court, instead of running. Or be chided for allowing an opponent to win a 50-50 loose ball. But the vast majority of time, although the execution may have been something less than perfection, the boys wearing the blue and white of Kentucky played their behinds off in search of victory.

On both ends of the floor.

Kentucky basketball fans don't demand or even expect perfection from their favorite team. Most UK fans are knowledgeable enough about the game to know perfection is an improbability. But what UK fans do expect is exceptional effort every time a player dons the Kentucky uniform.

Heck, I can give great effort. It doesn't take talent. It doesn't take much preparation, but it does take a player who wants to get better and who hates to lose. Since the beginning of this season, though, effort has been an unexpected and unwanted issue with this team.

Calipari has repeatedly bemoaned this squad's rebounds lost to a more enthusiastic opponent, troubling lack of hustle, and disinterested defense. Camp Cal, designed to hasten the "you must play hard to succeed" learning curve, has brought a modicum of improvement, but it's improvement well short of the type of focused effort the 'Cats must display in order to compete and beat good teams.

Thankfully, Calipari will receive a helping hand with his troops on Saturday, and the assistance will come from none other than Rick Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals.

If one is an educator, a teacher, or a coach, surely nothing tops a lesson driven home by real life, by real events. It has to be satisfying to have one's lesson plan affirmed by an up close and personal real-life experience of the student. The student's light bulb, once dim, suddenly beams with illumination upon the realization that, hey, that teacher isn't full of crap after all.

And the Kentucky Wildcats, especially those 'Cats reticent to accept the urgings of Calipari, are in for a "light bulb moment," an awakening of biblical proportions as they make the short trek westward, to take on UofL this Saturday afternoon.

The 'Cats, in short order, are going to witness what it means to be focused. They are going to witness what it means to play hard. They are going to witness what it means to play up-in-you defense designed to create offensive chaos, frustration and bad decisions. They are going to witness what it means to have a team, a very talented team, strive with all their might to crush hope and desire from the psyche of the Wildcats.

UofL's burning desire to beat the 'Cats doesn't come from just the two teams being arch-rivals who detest one another. No, making matters worse -- if one is a UK fan -- is the fact that Louisville has lost four straight games to Kentucky, two last year, with the final Kentucky win taking place in the Final Four.

It goes without saying, Louisville will be ready and intent on embarrassing an opponent capable of being embarrassed. Louisville will be P.R.I.M.E.D. And the crowd ... well, the KFC Yum! Center red clad contingent will loudly and feverishly revile the 'Cats with a reverberating rhapsody as the Card backers attempt to intimidate UK's not yet ready for prime time players. The Cardinal players will feed off of the nuclear energy emanating from the very pores of the UK haters, and steam roll the half-focused, halfhearted 'Cats. Even Flat Stanley will exclaim after the final horn mercifully sounds, "Wow Wildcats, you guys are flat!"

If the Wildcats think the jacked-up crowd at Notre Dame was boisterous ... well, the Yum! Center rockin' will serve to enlighten the youthful 'Cats on what it means to feel passionate hatred. Probably for the first time. And that would be alright, it is after all part and parcel of being a freshman in big time college basketball, but this Kentucky team hasn't yet conceived what it means to match an opponents' intensity and hustle. The concept is simply lost on this group.

Which really doesn't make much sense, because one of the pillars of Cal's philosophy is to teach that playing with grit, playing with toughness, playing hard, is an absolute necessity if one is looking to get better, compete with the best, and win games. But these Wildcat players, at least a portion of the players, seems to have cast aside Calipari's teachings as nonsense, as, it-doesn't-apply-to-me, rubbish.

Which begs the questions: Has Calipari, sending over two dozen players to the NBA, meant nothing to this team? Has Cal's four Final Four appearances and national title not been enough to convince this squad that he knows of which he speaks? Has the demonstrated improvement by so many of UK's players over the last three years blown by, unnoticed by this group of 'Cats?

The follow-up to those pertinent questions is, How full of oneself does someone have to be in order to shrug off the coaching of Cal and his staff? I shudder to think.

If the team would just look up. Whether they are in the Craft Center or Rupp Arena. Just look up and see the banners hanging. That's what talent that plays hard accomplishes: championships. If that isn't enough, the players unconvinced by Cal's methods should look and listen to the Calipari disciples currently earning NBA pay checks, players who praise Cal as an honest, make-you-better head coach.

But perhaps the current 'Cats are only concerned with earning a hefty NBA pay day, and less interested in getting better. If Lexington is merely a necessary and unwanted pit stop on the road to personnel glory and wealth for those young men, well, I'd rather those players ply their trade elsewhere. At Kentucky, competing, working to get better; that's what Wildcat basketball is all about. Unfortunately, as of this moment in time, some members of this team are only on campus to bide their time. Because the NBA says so.

And that is precisely why this team, a Wildcat team with enough talent to compete for a Final Four berth, will receive the life lesson it deserves Saturday afternoon in Louisville.

Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!

To follow me on Twitter: @KenHowlett