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Kentucky Basketball: Can Cal Work a Minor Miracle, or are UK's Flaws Fatal?

The past is not an indicator of UK's future, there are serious flaws and Cal will have to work some magic.

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Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

If you go to any casino and observe the Roulette table, you will see a graphic that shows the last spin's results.  Many times, you will see the same color hitting repeatedly.

Human nature inevitably kicks in and your immediate thought is that it has come up red 7 straight times, so black has to be next; as a result, I am going to bet on black (or vice versa).

You may have even won, and thought your intuition was spot on.  Spoiler alert, the last seven rolls had absolutely nothing to do with your color coming up.  Each spin of the ball is entirely independent of the past outcomes.

I mention this because members of the Big Blue Nation are determined to compare this year's team to a past team as a way of trying to predict the future.  The bottom line is this team is independent as compared to the past.  Those teams have absolutely no bearing on what is going to happen with this team.

The only common thread is John Calipari, and while Cal could be the most important factor in that equation, I am not sure even he can overcome this team's flaws.

I am not ready to give up on this team as a possible Final 4 contender, but the margin for error is getting smaller every day.  This team is simply not constructed properly; it is the fallout of so many Calipari targets spurning his scholarship offers.

You can say we ended up with the #2 recruiting class anyway, and we did, but knowing what we do now I am guessing that would be a MUCH lower class ranking.

Who would have guessed that Skal Labissiere would be a project and that Isaiah Briscoe would shoot historically poorly?  Can you imagine if we had not pulled Jamal Murray at the 11th hour?  Hello NIT?

The hope was that the three-guard lineup would be a dribble drive motion heaven sent, along with Skal Labissiere playing like a #2 draft pick, and Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress playing clean up.

We saw this play out to perfection against the likes of NJIT and the games prior, but something strange happened on the way to #9.

  • Skal lost his confidence and the entirety of his game, an unprecedented fall from grace among Calipari burger boys.
  • Marcus Lee is vastly improved, but is still a role player.  Although he produces well, it is a mostly reactive offense production with put backs and cleanups.  Needed and welcomed, but he is not a player UK can run the offense through.
  • Alex Poythress is who he has always been.  He is an enigma who may or may not show up.  He was the perfect fit for last year's team because if he was invisible, Cal could take him out and others would pick him up.  This year he has nobody to pick up his slack, so when he's in another world, it is a near-fatal flaw for UK.

This is the crux of why I think John Calipari has the toughest job of his UK career coming up these next 45 days.  Teams of the past had the right pieces in place, just not the proper cohesiveness.  They did not get the idea of ‘being your brother's keeper' and sacrificing for the good of the team until it mattered.

Eventually, the 2014 team got it, and went on that magical Final 4 run.  People want to point to the 2011 team as the reason we should all relax and let it play out.  It is the closest comparison, but there are two major differences.

That was a completely different team that has no bearing on 2016, and the players not only gave their all, they gave more than they had.

There was no way that team was going to make that run without Josh Harrellson becoming a player that nobody expected him to be.

There was no way they would have made that run without DeAndre Liggins going all-in on being a defensive stopper and timely three-point shooter.

The difference is players like those two cared more about bringing honor to the name of the front of the jersey than a lot of the ones playing now.  There are exceptions.  I think Ulis, Murray, Briscoe, Matthews, and Mulder have the correct mental state and desire for an unlikely Final 4 run.

I am not saying the others are selfish, I am saying that they may not have the mental makeup that Harrellson and Liggins had to make that run.

"We had people who didn't want to play."

Coach Calipari loves to say that UK is everyone's Super Bowl, and he is right.  Every game we go into is an event, every away venue is a hostile environment, and every one of those games has one player that seems to up his game to a superhuman level.

The difference between good Calipari teams and great ones is their ability to smash all hope of winning that 'Super Bowl.'  The best Calipari teams defined those moments, instead being defined by them.

We have seen on multiple occasions now, teams have risen to the challenge against UK (OSU, LSU, Auburn) only to deflate immediately after the win and suffer a bad loss, proving the 'super bowl' mentality, also known as 'The Kentucky Effect.'

The problem with this years team is not that teams perform above their heads against UK, the problem is this group is allowing those teams to get into that zone and stay there.

Mike Tyson once said, "everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." There could not be a better mantra for every good UK basketball team.

Each time those teams come into the game with "Beer Muscles," as Cal would put it, they should be punched in the mouth.  This group is allowing those Beer Muscles to become real muscles and instead of initiating the punch, they are absorbing it.

The Calipari teams that were immediately successful or became successful by March met that criterion.  I am not saying this team cannot make that happen, but I am saying I am becoming increasingly skeptical that our zebras are going to change their stripes.

I will say it again, there is still time for this team to right the ship and make another run, but you cannot base it on the past.  There are essentially 4 things that have to happen.  If the following were to happen, Coach Calipari will have succeeded in executing a nearly Sisyphean task.

  • Alex Poythress has to somehow not be the Jekyll and Hyde version of Alex Poythress and turn into a facsimile of the Alabama version.  You can feel Calipari's exasperation with Alex anytime he is asked about his disappearance in a game with his canned response of "you'll have to ask him."
  • Marcus Lee has to become a proactive producer.  Not just cleaning up the garbage.  He has to be a threat in the post.
  • Skal Labissiere has to be serviceable.  Forget being a #2 draft pick, he just needs to be a guy Cal can count on for 6 points and 6-8 rebounds.
  • Derek Willis has to be the guy we watched Saturday, and he has to bring that every night.  He could be a more athletic version of Scott Padgett if he would go all-in for honoring the Commonwealth.

The bottom line is that this years Kentucky team does not have the proper pieces to gel into place and become a juggernaut organically.

The hope (and I will repeat, it is possible) is that the aforementioned will come to fruition, and we will all be talking about another magical run.  However, do not count on it just because of 2011 and 2014. The proof is in the pudding, and those four players have to make the conscious decision to be more than they think they are capable of being.