Big Night for John Calipari
Coach Cal is putting a lot of eggs in the Big Blue Madness basket. Some big-time recruits will be in attendance tonight, including Trae Young and other stars of the 2017 class as well as Romeo Langford and others of the 2018 class.
It is rare for Cal to not have any commitments at this time. Nick Richards and P.J. Washington seem to be the two closest to committing. Hopefully, those guys can get some of the other guys on board.
The pomp and circumstance of Big Blue Madness is unrivaled in college basketball. No other program in the sport has the rabid attention of the fans the way that Kentucky does, and no other program is as interactive with the fans in attendance as Kentucky is with theirs. The recruits and the players will definitely be feeling the BBN love.
But not everything is lovey dovey. One of the special highlights of the event this year is that John Calipari is welcoming back every player that has ever donned a Kentucky uniform in order to be honored at the event. His plan is for the recruits and the nation to see how loyal he is to all of the players and how many of them have gone on to have success in the pros.
Yesterday during his radio broadcast, Matt Jones received a text from a source that stated that only one member of the 1996 National Championship team will be in attendance, which is disheartening because that is one of the most beloved teams in any era of Kentucky basketball and one of the most dominant teams in the history of college basketball.
Jones and others, including yours truly, believe that there is a rift between the ‘96 players, John Calipari and the Kentucky program. The reasoning is two-fold: loyalty to Rick Pitino, a man whom has no love lost for John Calipari and vice-versa, and a lack of celebration for the 20th anniversary of that historic team.
But the team was honored two years ago at Rupp, and John Calipari purchased National Championship rings for those guys that were presented during the ceremony. Why did he do that? Because for some strange reason, those players never received rings for that title. Cal didn't have to do that. He didn't coach those guys. In fact, that was the team that defeated Cal's UMass team in the Final Four.
It is yet to be seen whether Jones' source is correct or not, but be rest assured it will be noted if it is true. The ‘96 team is a jewel in the crown of Kentucky basketball. It would be a damn shame if that team and its coach are willing to put a childish agenda ahead of the love and tradition of college basketball at the University of Kentucky.
Defensive Calling Card and Can these Guys Shoot
This tweet really stood out to me:
Cal: I will be disappointed in February if this isn't our best defensive team.— Jeff Drummond (@JDrumUK) October 13, 2016
John Calipari rarely brags about his team this early on in the season, but he believes he has something special with these guys, especially on defense. Cal hangs his hat on defense and his best teams at UK have been defensive juggernauts. The 2012 team and the 2015 put up some historic defensive numbers. Both teams had big men that could block just about anything played defense like guards in Anthony Davis and Willie Cauley-Stein. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was a relentless dog in 2012. His defense caused turnovers which lead to fast breaks and easy buckets.
Who will be those players for this team? Early reports are that De'Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe will be the dogs like MKG, and the combination of Bam Adebayo blocking shots in the paint and 6'9 Wenyen Gabriel's ability to guard the perimeter, Cal will have the recipe to shut teams down.
Malik Monk has also drawn early praise from Cal as his defense has improved. Monk stated that he didn't care about anything but scoring in high school, so this is something new to him, and he is buying into the philosophy. We all know Dominique Hawkins can be a pest on D and Derek Willis has turned his attention to improving that part of his game.
This team will be able to get to the basket for dunks, lobs, and lay-ups, but there is concern about shooting. My advice: don't worry about it. Derek Willis shot 44% from three last season. Malik Monk has a devastating mid-range jumper that makes him impossible to guard if it's falling. Briscoe's form looks lightyears better than it did at any point last season.
Even if the team struggles to shoot at times, the defense will offset it as long as it is as lockdown as we all think it will be. Kentucky will want to defend, run the floor, and get easy buckets in transition. If they are doing that, everything else will be gravy.
Sticking With Stephen Johnson's Arm
It hasn't been pretty for Stephen Johnson's passing ever since his breakout 310-yard, three-touchdown performance against New Mexico State.
Since then, Johnson is 34/65 passing for 273 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions. His number have gotten progressively worse as well: he threw for 135 yards against South Carolina, 89 yards against Alabama, and only 49 yards against Vanderbilt. In a word: barf.
Mark Stoops acknowledged this week that Johnson has been suffering from some discomfort in his wrist. Has that effected his passing game? Johnson says it hasn't, that he needs to be more focused on making the throws.
That time is now. In my estimation, Kentucky has four winnable games left on the schedule: vs. Mississippi State, at Missouri, vs. Georgia, and vs. Austin Peay. The least likely of those being a win is at home against Georgia, but it's not impossible to get that one.
There's not much room for error. Johnson has to again find his arm for Kentucky to get to a bowl. The running game has been fantastic with the combination of Benny Snell, Jojo Kemp, Boom Williams, and even Johnson himself. The offensive line has been run blocking like we haven't seen them do in what seems like forever. But Johnson must be able to keep defenses honest and ensure that this offense isn't one dimensional.
There are too many talented wide receivers that aren't being used. And don't get me started on CJ Conrad.
It looks as if Drew Barker is done for the season. The staff really wants to preserve Gunnar Hoak's redshirt. So this is Johnson's team going forward. I like him, and I love his attitude. He doesn't make excuses and the players respect him. But he needs to be the best passer he can for this team to break through to a bowl.