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Kentucky Basketball: Saying What Needs To Be Said

As is my wont after a late Kentucky Wildcats game and staying up until 1:30 AM, I pretty much turned off my blogging for a while just to reclaim my thoughts from the madness of the night before and the emotion of a game that probably should register in the "L" column.

So when I finally got around to looking at something besides the comments to my own article of last night, I ran across the article Thayer Evans wrote for Fox Sports recycling some of the same old knocks on John Calipari you see everywhere. These three paragraphs encapsulate the entire tone, if not the detail of the piece, so if you are one of those people who don't want to give pageviews to sportswriters who draw your ire, don't click the link above and just read this:

But Calipari knows he was rather fortunate against a Mississippi State team that scored only four points in the final 6-1/2 minutes and is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament after losing four straight games. His team had been feasting on the waifish-weak Southeastern Conference and entered Tuesday with just the nation’s 47th-best strength of schedule.

So there’s still plenty of reason to doubt Kentucky, just like there always is with Calipari’s teams.

Because the knock on Calipari will remain the same until he finally wins his first NCAA championship: He can collect all the talent he wants, but inevitably underachieves with it because of his coaching shortcomings.

Two things need to be pointed out here when it comes to facts: first of all, the SEC is 3rd in the RPI in conference strength, and 4th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings. Calling the SEC "waifish-weak" is not a defensible opinion, and Evans even goes so far as to suggest Calipari is somehow coaching his players to always say the same thing about him when asked.

The second thing is that Mississippi St. only scored four points in 6-1/2 minutes because Kentucky locked them up like Charlie Manson with a basketball concept known as "defense," something Evans should familiarize himself with -- because apparently everyone but him knows the Wildcats are really good at this "defense" thing.

As to whether or not there is reason to doubt Kentucky, I couldn't agree more, but not because John Calipari is the coach. The problem with arguments like "Calipari has never won an NCAA tournament" is that the same thing could have been said about Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim, and many other so-called "great" coaches for major portions of their career. It isn't as if Calipari has been coaching for 45 years, and he's only been at a school of the stature of Duke, UConn or Syracuse for 3 years now.

So when you see this, just realize that Calipari's naysayers are hanging on by a very thin thread that they all know is going to snap and drop them into the abyss of a Kentucky national title under Coach Cal, but they can't stand the thought and are hanging on for life and sanity. His "coaching shortcomings" are the same as those of the aforesaid legends before they won their first title, but Evans and his ilk want to make it somehow different because they are so invested in disliking Calipari. When that thread finally snaps, hopefully later this year, it will be most interesting to see them spin the loss of something so dear. Interesting, and a pleasure.

You may also be sure that I will relentlessly mock them when that thread does part. I haven't forgotten any of these slights, and their comments will come back to haunt them.


Now, to the game. Contra Evans, who basically blames the MSU loss on the Bulldog's failure to score rather than Kentucky's incredible defense and change of defensive strategy by the "coaching shortcomings" of Calipari to put Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on Dee Bost, this was a stirring comeback for the Wildcats. The problem is, Kentucky shouldn't have been there in the first place.

What was disappointing about this game, and it cannot be minimized by the impressive second half, was Kentucky's failure to fire in the first half. It wasn't just that they were cold, they were shooting quick challenged shots, and their defense was about as intense as Sean Penn rolling out of his marijuana smoke-filled van in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Now, one single half of basketball doesn't make a trend, and if this was the first time we'd seen that, I don't think I'd have much to say about it. But the first half of the MSU game looked unpleasantly familiar.

In fact we just saw something very similar Saturday against Ole Miss. It was the same thing -- quick, challenged shots and inadequate defensive intensity leading to a deficit against an inferior team. The fact that the turnaround was quicker speaks more to the relative talents of the two opposing teams and the game venue than anything else.

One lapse out of many quarters is an anomaly, but two in two games makes me concerned. This team may well be reading their own press clippings, and if so, they are setting themselves up for a loss. Coach Cal clearly needs to refocus these guys, and while it is impressive that they put the clamps on MSU for half after making a mess of the first 20 minutes, repeating that in the NCAA tournament where the stakes are so much higher is a recipe for giving Thayer Evans his dearest wish.

So while I am pleased with the outcome, I am most displeased with the process, and you should be, also. This team can no longer afford the luxury of the "they are just young" excuse. That time has passed. If this Kentucky team is truly to ascend to the pinnacle of the college basketball world it's time to put aside childish things, like the youth excuse, and forget about them. A team that plays "young" is not going to win the NCAA Tournament -- it never has and it never will. So let's leave that excuse right here for the rest of the year.

Let this game serve as a lesson and a warning of what can still happen, and at a more meaningful time. Yes, the victory was impressive as comebacks go. It is also a reminder that one mental lapse can end your season prematurely, and the time for "one-and-done" is near, and I'm not speaking of the NBA draft.

Hopefully, that lesson won't be missed, but learned well.