So that happened.
When John Calipari started his great experiment here at Kentucky, with high turnover and incredible talent, we knew that this was a possibility. One critical injury can derail an outstanding team -- can you imagine if we had lost Anthony Davis last year? As we have seen today, it takes an even bigger toll on a team that was barely a good one, and not very good at all by Kentucky standards.
Congratulations to Tennessee, that was very impressive. Make no mistake, this was by far the best game they have played all year, and they have not shown ability like this all year long. If they can continue this level of play, they will definitely find their way into the NCAA field. It would be easy to say that Kentucky's defense was responsible, and to some extent it was, but it's pretty rare to see a team that averages 28% from the arc make all five threes, or one that averages 67% from the line shoot 81% on 31 free throws.
But let's be honest here, Kentucky was awful. In the first half, this team was timid, uncompetitive, and completely feckless. They could not defend anybody, they never communicated once, and they turned the ball over against a good but not great defensive squad 10 times in the first half alone. Tennessee got up 11 mores shots than UK -- in the first half.
There is nothing good at all to say about the first half. Nobody played well, not even Jarrod Polson who got his first start. Trae Golden beat Polson like a drum off the bounce and completely exposed his inexperience and lack of quickness. That's not to beat on Polson -- he did some good things and showed a lot of fight, and if I awarded game balls in losses, he'd be a prime contender. Defensively, though, he was a mess.
To be fair, the same kind of thing could be said about every one of the Wildcats, I'm just not going to single them out. All of them failed to compete, got down on themselves, and showed absolutely none of the characteristics of a good basketball team. In short, they were awful from front to back, side to side, and everywhere in between. Kentucky got exactly what they deserved on the floor -- a complete domination by a team that has shown very little to suggest they could do that.
To the questions, and answers:
Questions that have been answered:
- Nerlens Noel's injury affected this team in a big way, compositionally and psychologically;
- Nerlens' loss was not the event that brought the team together;
- The combination of a road game, a major rotation loss, and the negative vibes around the program caused by obsessive concern with the NCAA tournament, and a poor game by the officials were all factors in this performance;
- Overcoming the physical deficiencies of this team will require much more than an act of will;
- There is fire on this team, but it is currently channeled into useless reactionary anger instead of improvement;
- This team is feeling sorry for itself, and the self-pity dominated the entire first half.
Questions that remain:
- Is this what we can expect from now on?
I don't think so. These guys have pride, and their pride was stomped on today by the Volunteers. Nobody at this level of basketball will accept this and move on. Look for improvement in the next game in all areas.
- So you say they are going to get better?
Yes, they will. This debacle was caused by a combination of factors.
You can't go into a game like this without a single thing going your way and hope for a good result. The loss of Nerlens, the press attention, the fact it is a road game against a rival, the importance of Nerlens to the way UK plays and the impact on the depth and confidence of the team was always going to render this result the high probability. Throw in a bad game by the officials -- which while it didn't affect the result, had to be a distraction -- and you get a recipe for disaster.
- Can we make the NCAA tournament?
Sure. There are lots of ways in. The problem is that the next game becomes huge, and not just the outcome. Another poor performance, or a loss at home to anyone but Florida, and no, we probably will not be selected, so we'd have to rise up and win the SEC tournament.
But this is likely to be as bad as it gets. I know a lot of people are extremely negative right now, but this team is much better than this effort, and to some extent, we saw that in the second half.
- Why is this team so bad?
"Bad" is relative, but they were certainly bad today by any measuring stick. It's a combination of factors, but mostly it's a lack of confidence in each other. Psychologically, this team is beaten down pretty far, both by circumstance, a lack of self-awareness, understanding of the game, and a leadership vacuum that has existed all year.
Losing Nerlens was an additional trauma to an already fragile psyche, and what we saw was a complete break with reality in the first half. That began to change in the second half.
- The second half wasn't that great. Is that all there is?
We hope not, but it could be. Kentucky could revert to a team that plays hard, but loses a lot -- that's unfortunately possible.
On the other hand, this could complete the catharsis this team needs to purge their unwillingness to compete. Their backs were against the wall when they got to Knoxville, and instead of coming out swinging, they stood in the corner and got beaten into a bloody mess.
Events like this generally have three outcomes -- the team folds and becomes a whipping boy without life or energy (much like the first half), the team becomes a drudge that struggles to do anything but tries hard in futility (the team we saw before the Nerlens injury), or the awakening of their competitive nature that will drive them to be more than the sum of their parts. I am incapable of telling you which one will happen, but note that two of the possible three outcomes are bad.
So this is where we are. This happened, and it was singularly unpleasant and the fans will wring their hands. Myself, I'm not that worried, it was just a game that had a lot more ways to go wrong than right, and the law of probability comes into play in a psychological way that is very hard to overcome.
This is actually better, in most ways, than a close loss, because it's clear that this team needed an additional dimension to the overall catastrophe that this week has been to break down their egos to the point that they can be rebuilt -- to strip the "cool" off them and show them that they cannot be weak and feckless in this league. Nobody is going to feel sorry for Kentucky if they suffer an injury and get their man parts cut off on the road.
To quote from "The Terminator," there is no fate -- except for the fate we make for ourselves. If this team wants to win, they must make their own fate. Will they?
We're going to find out.