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Kentucky Wildcats Basketball: Analyzing The Analysis of the UK-UNC Game

What does Kentucky's loss to North Carolina mean? We try to sort it all out.

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Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

I'll have a links post up in a short while, but I wanted to first look at some reaction to Kentucky's loss at North Carolina, which has been a mixed bag so far. Some of the commentary has been fair and spot on, and some of it has been as thoughtless and hyperbolic as you can imagine.

First of all, let's have a look at Calipari's comments, in case you haven't seen them yet:

What's significant here is how disappointed Calipari is. We spend a lot of time on the body language of the players, but the body language of Calipari in this video, to me, is spectacularly negative, unusually so for Calipari in the post game. He is clearly frustrated that he hasn't been able to have more of an impact on these guys to this point, and that he still seems to be preaching to an empty church.

My feelings about his reaction are mixed. In earlier years, he has been much more positive about such losses, but for whatever reason, he's having a real hard time with this one. I doubt the rivalry aspect has anything to do with it, Calipari is notoriously agnostic toward Kentucky's history except in the context of how it can help him do his job. He sees the UK/UNC rivalry less in its historic context and more as a test that needs passing, and one which Kentucky notably failed to pass.

Let's have a look now at some commentary by Rob Dauster of MSNBC, who styles himself a defender of traditional basketball and is hence somewhat hostile, although he tries to mask it, toward Calipari's "non traditional" approach:

The truth is that Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist were role players on that team. Say what you will about points and rebounds and whatever, Davis was a guy that anchored a top ten defense and was a finisher around the rim. Kidd-Gilchrist was the epitome of a glue-guy. He defended. He rebounded. He set screens, he dove on the floor and, from people I’ve talked to, he was much more of a leader in that locker room than he got credit for.


To be frank, in my opinion, the guy that’s going to have to make the sacrifice is Julius Randle simply because he’s the only other starter that can do more than score. Can you see either of the Harrisons putting their body on the line to get a loose ball? Can you see James Young setting a back-screen on Patric Young to get Cauley-Stein a lane to the rim?

This is both fair and unfair at the same time. I think I agree with him that Randle is going to have to be the guy that sacrifices some numbers, just because he's the kind of guy who will get good numbers most of the time by simply playing hard. He needs to be more willing to look for the pass and use his power as a scalpel, rather than a bludgeon, and be a decoy to open up the perimeter players more.

He also makes a somewhat unfair allusion to the Harrison Twins and James Young being unwilling to throw their bodies around. We have seen that some, although not as much as we'd like, and most of it is because everyone on this team is still inwardly focused. They see everything in context of themselves.

Getting over that is not an easy thing to do. We saw it last season, and we saw it to some extent in prior years, particularly 2009-10. It took John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins a while to get outwardly focused, but they eventually did it. 2013 never did, but a lot of that was caused by Noel going down at a critical time in the season. He was the clear leader of that team, if an imperfect one, and without him, it collapsed under the weight of its shortcomings in athleticism, depth, and experience.

This team is in no danger of that. They will not be worse than they are right now, and have improved noticeably since the season began. I think what frustrates Wildcats fans is that improvement has come much more slowly, and much less consistently, than most of us expected. Time to adjust those expectations, but it's certainly not time to give up.

Let's move on to John Clay:

This Kentucky basketball team was overhyped.

A month into this 2013-14 basketball season, the over-the-top notion that the nation's pre-season No. 1 team would instantly overcome its youth and inexperience and wreak havoc on the college basketball world has not come to pass.

I beg to differ with my friend John — this team was not "overhyped," it was hyped exactly right. What has happened is that they haven't lived up to that hype, which is very often the case. A freshman class like this has never been seen before in modern times, and that alone made them worthy of the hype. That it turned out to be hype rather than reality was probably inevitable. Gary Parrish actually gets it right:

I mean, I can't defend a team with no notable wins and three losses being ranked 11th in the Associated Press poll, so I'll give you that. But the preseason No. 1 ranking remains reasonable given the talent Calipari enrolled -- even if that talent hasn't yet meshed -- because preseason rankings are, by definition, guesses. Educated guesses, sure. But they're still just guesses, and a wrong guess isn't a stupid guess if it's rooted in something sensible.

Kentucky's preseason No. 1 ranking was rooted in something sensible.

Exactly right. It turned out that Kentucky could not live up to the hype, but the hype made sense. It may still make sense in the end, but it makes all that 40-0 talk look really humorous in retrospect.

I also found this interesting, and instructive:

It was interesting to watch in person because the TV cameras couldn't have possibly captured the extent to which Calipari was bothered by his players breaking down individually and collectively against UNC. I watched guys check-in and out without touching hands, which isn't a big deal except for that it rarely happens with close teams. I saw Julius Randle roll his eyes at his guards -- specifically Andrew and Aaron Harrison -- whenever they failed to even think about getting him the ball on the block. I witnessed Calipari reduced to yelling at players to huddle after a foul when most players these days simply huddle on their own.

I don't trust Parrish enough to take his comments about body language at face value, but there is no real doubt that this team isn't close. To be frank, they may never be. To get close, they have to forget about what the other guy is doing and worry about what the team is doing, and not be afraid to stand up and tell somebody. What Randle should have done is come out to Aaron, tell him to look inside and work to get him the ball back if he's open. Randle has to stop reacting, and start talking. So do the Harrisons. So does young. Speak up, please.

Eric Crawford offers us a false choice:

This is going to go one of two ways for UK. Either players are going to put their heads down, get disappointed and start thinking about draft day, or they're going to get tougher and learn. In the worst case scenario, players buy into discouragement. Guys who thought they'd be playing more check out emotionally, and the season -- while still pretty successful -- flames out.

Or UK will use the next couple of weeks to keep improving. And the team is improving. A loss at North Carolina is not a sign of any kind of apocalypse. UK now has two home games in the next two weeks, the second of which will be against a Louisville team that could be in the top five, and which will be played in Rupp Arena. Calipari has a chance to work with his players, and they should be in a mood to listen after losing again in a big national TV game

I would love it if life were this black and white, but sadly — or perhaps thankfully, it just isn't. We hope for the second paragraph, we fear the first, but there is significant middle-ground there. Let us suppose Kentucky wins the Louisville game — does that mean they have arrived? If only. A single game in isolation usually (although there are exceptions) prove little other than one team or the other had a good game. What matters more is how Kentucky performs after finally breaking through with a big win — which they will, eventually. How they take that victory and internalize what it took to get it, and what it takes to continue.

Recall, if you will, 2012. That team beat Louisville, and was looking very good at that point. Then, it barely scraped by a decent-to-average Tennessee team on the road, a game that could easily have gone the Volunteers way. Then two games later, a narrow escape at home against Alabama. That was the point at which the 2012 Wildcats became a truly great team — they had learned how to win close games at home and away. That narrow escape at home and on the road proved to them that they had what it takes. The rest, as they say, is history.

Adam Himmelsbach sees the glass half-empty:

And at some point you can’t really look at losses as anomalies. At some point you have to realize that this simply might never become a great team. And coach John Calipari will tell you that right now they are not even a good team.

This is right. In the end, you have to win, not just write off losses as bad luck or "anomalies," to use his construction. Kentucky is really much closer, though, to being a good team than even they know. True, there are some glaring problems, such as the lack of willingness to allow the team concept to consume their individualities, but that is the difference between a good team and great team. Right now, getting to good is the problem, and that mainly requires better execution and more team awareness, not necessarily brotherhood.

Nicole Auerbach of USA Today makes a fine point:

Kentucky, on the other hand, just looks young. The Wildcats are making coach John Calipari sweat (literally) by making basic mistakes: lazy passing that turns into turnovers, not executing the way the plays are drawn up and missing lots of free throws. If Kentucky can take care of the ball better and make more free throws, it'll win more games. The 'Cats aren't getting blown out by the good teams they're losing to — those little things are difference-makers.

I think this is right. There are two or three little execution things that would make Kentucky a good team — not a great team, but a good team — and they are tiny little things that just shouldn't be so glaringly absent right now. For the moment, I think Calipari needs to focus on fixing those. The "brotherhood" aspect of the Wildcats needn't be made in a day, it can take a while. Let it. First, let's get good at executing basic things like... you know, passes and free throws. Becoming a band of brothers is a long-term project anyway.

Finally, Randy McClure of Rush the Court writing for Sports Illustrated:

It's difficult to place long-term takeaways from games in December, but this much is clear. North Carolina -- with or without its suspended players -- has proven that it can beat anybody in college basketball this season. Kentucky, which has yet to prove that it can beat a Top 25 team yet, still has the obvious ability to get there. Like most everything else, whether one or both of these teams ends up in Arlington a little over three months from now depends on their respective maturity and development. But if Saturday proved anything, both teams can get there.

I don't think there's much to dispute here. Kentucky has struggled to get over the hump, and that's largely because of the little things. Now, just correcting the little things won't get them to Arlington, although it will get them a long way down the road. The Wildcats must develop a cohesiveness that comes from a joy of playing the game, and right now, they just aren't having that much fun. Every time one of them makes a bad play, they let it affect their game. Having played this game a lot in my youth, I know how that works. It's hard to overcome negative thinking when bad plays seem to pile up.

That's where maturity comes in, when you decide that you can help your team by doing things other than what you normally do — shutting down your man, forcing reticent teammates to talk to each other, forcing a huddle after play stoppage, chest-bumping a great play. When we start seeing this, we will start seeing the team that we have been hoping for emerge from the cocoon of isolation they find themselves in — and if they do cut through their cocoons, what a team they will be.