The rhythms of a college basketball season are peculiar. They reflect nature and the calendar, and – especially here in the Bluegrass – they reflect a particular state of mind.
So the season begins while it’s still before the frost and there are brightly colored leaves on the trees. It’s football season, but Kentucky fans are itching for Big Blue Madness, to begin falling in love with their high-powered freshmen and for the games to start.
The early part of the season coincides with the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, all bright lights and good feeling, set-up wins against lesser opponents and, sprinkled in, the occasional marquee games against North Carolina or Kansas or Duke, culminating with Louisville. Kentucky wins enough of those to raise the spirits. In good years, it wins all of those!
You get together with friends or family for those games in a holiday setting, by the Christmas tree at home or in the festive lights of a favorite pub.
And then, the seasonal holiday lights go out, we begin to realize how cold it has gotten outside and how early it gets dark, and basketball becomes a couple of nights a week of hunkering down in the den or living room or bedroom in a comfortable chair and watching the games on TV, the only nighttime images of light flickering in the cold Kentucky winter.
That’s where we are now. (The rest of the country calls it January.) In the best of seasons, those are evenings of pleasure and satisfaction, knowing what we have and how good these teams are, the SEC wins themselves a foregone assumption. We thrill to the exploits on the court, both team and individual.
Then there are seasons like this one. We don’t know what we have. Games that should be runaways are suddenly tense nail-biters. They look good on Saturday, suddenly baffling on Tuesday.
Do we have enough talent? What kind of ball should we be playing? What’s happened to our shooting? Why are we not dominating the boards? Can’t we put anybody away?
The grumpy halftime Calipari, biting the head off the poor sideline reporter who’s only trying to do her job – which is to ask obvious questions – just adds to our misgivings. Yeah, we also thought Derek Willis’ two threes just before the half against Mississippi State were pretty important. Cal clearly didn’t think so. He’s even more impatient than usual. Does he have Brooklyn on the mind?
At the beginning of the Mississippi State game, Sean Farnham said on TV that Kentucky can’t settle for threes, that it has to get it into the big men. But after a few possessions of desultory perimeter passing with little result, it became clear that in fact, no, this Kentucky team does have to settle for threes. It’s the team’s most dependable weapon, the only way to separate the defense and allow for enough spacing to develop any inside game.
If Ulis and Murray are hitting, it also gets Kentucky some big numbers on the early scoreboard, instead of finding itself trailing 11-2, which seems to happen too often.
But once the inside does open up – then what? What exactly can Marcus Lee do with the ball when he gets it? Alex Poythress loves the baseline, but he can’t always find the space to get to the basket, so he either gets a charging call or he’s forced into the middle where he just doesn’t seem to have a reliable supply of shots.
Drawing fouls gets Kentucky to the line, of course.But, way too often, boink!!
And then the grumbling starts.
In the meantime, those other SEC teams with less to lose are flying around, skying for offensive rebounds, diving for loose balls, throwing up poor percentage shots that somehow go in.
Actually, Kentucky has that, too. His name is Isaiah Briscoe. For much of the season, I felt he was hampering UK’s offensive flow, holding onto the ball way too long, finding himself in impossible freelance situations, turning the ball over.
And he still does that. But more and more, he’s developing a rhythm with Murray and Ulis that allows him to find spaces in the defense, to find mismatches and defensive lapses that allow for those kinds of circus shots that should be tried only in the backyard. H-O-R-S-E.
Much of that of course depends on Murray and Ulis also being on their games. If they’re not running this freewheeling offense that ends with one of them having an open shot, it does bog down into the ball getting lost inside, bobbled and tied up, kicked out of bounds, turned over.
As for the rest of it: Will Skal show up? Why can’t Marcus Lee put two good games together? Once and for all, is Alex the beast or is he not the beast? That, I’m afraid, is the future for this team, and for all of us, for the next few months.
All the optimism after the Alabama game has been replaced by all the same concerns as after the LSU game.
Guys will come off the bench. Sometimes, a Mulder or Willis or Matthews or Hawkins will do something really significant. Sometimes, they’ll commit charging fouls and turnovers, miss a defensive assignment and get banished back to the bench.
Looking for team consistency? I’m afraid that’s going to be an elusive Pot of Gold this season.
And note to announcers and mainstream sports journalists: Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Willie Cauley-Stein, Julius Randle, Anthony Davis and John Wall have moved on. They’re in the NBA, they don’t play here anymore. Comparing these guys to those guys has simply no application, especially after you’ve already said it once or twice already.
In the meantime, the record is 13-3, 3-1 in conference, not a disaster, not NIT level. And, most weeknights, a Kentucky basketball game still takes the cold chill out of the winter air.