Why you should root for Kentucky
Posted April 7, 2014
Maybe they were right all along
At the beginning of the season, both major opinion polls tabbed the Kentucky Wildcats as the number 1 team in the nation. Honestly, I thought that was foolish. Considering that they were coming off a season that ended with a first round loss in the National Invitation Tournament and nearly every single player in their effective rotation was about to play his first college season, putting them on top of the preseason poll seemed ridiculous.
In fact, it was really unfair.
This team then went on to lose 10 times this season, including a half dozen times in the SEC -- a league considered so mediocre that only three teams received bids to the NCAA tournament and one was sent first to Dayton to play their way into your office pool.
It was, to say the least, an uneven year for Kentucky. John Calipari, their lightning rod of a head coach, was at times exasperated with his team's play, at other times he was defensive of the negative attention and it all came to a head with an ejection and a no-show press conference following a loss at South Carolina.
Through it all, however, Calipari kept his team together. Maybe because he knew something we didn't. Maybe that was the now infamous tweak. Maybe because he took to heart what many have said about having to always deal with the inexperience and wavering focus of one year players. Or, maybe, he's just a much better coach and motivator than you think. Whatever the reason, Cal flipped the switch and his team's collective light bulb is burning bright.
I think I'm like many of you. I'm not sure what percentage of college basketball fans put themselves in the group that don't like Calipari, but I'm certain that it's a significant fraction. Whatever it is, I'm in it. I find a lot of his shtick very self-serving. I view his "this program is all about the players" to be more of a front for it really being all about Calipari. In all honesty, Cal isn't all that different from most coaches when it comes to a "me first" mentality, he's just not quite as good at the smokescreen. Are the ACC coaches who fought to move the date to declare for the draft to the day prior to the early signing period -- in this case, April 15 -- any less self-interested? It's not that big of a deal, right? It's only their future, and why should they be able to seek out as much information to make an informed decision?
But, it's all about the players. Keep that in mind.
This Kentucky team, however, with all of their "one and done" players, is incredibly likable. There's no posing for the cameras with them. As good as Julius Randle, James Young, Dakari Johnson and the Harrison brothers may be, they play the game without a chest-thumping, look-at-how-good-I-am attitude. They're very much all business and very, very good at what they do. Whatever happened between the beginning of November and the middle of March that caused this group of future NBA first round draft picks to lose 10 times is gone. What's left is a team that plays together and for each other, the two most important qualities of championship teams.
A few weeks ago, Kentucky looked like they were headed down an entirely different path to the end of the season. Then, when Duke and Kansas, with their own expected one-year-wonders, also bowed out of the tournament it was expected that Big Blue Nation would follow suit, thus cementing the ideal that the days of dominating with great freshmen had come and gone. But, these "kittens" were uncooperative to the intended storyline. In truth, great TEAMS win championships, and those teams come in all forms.
The 2009 North Carolina Tar Heels were a star-laden group of future NBA players, but they started five upperclassmen including Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson. The following year, Duke's starting five featured just one player currently in the NBA -- Pistons forward Kyle Singler -- though Miles and Mason Plumlee did play a little as reserves. Kemba Walker was the star of Connecticut's 2011 title team, but he was hardly alone as current Oklahoma City Thunder guard Jeremy Lamb and some runny-nosed freshman from Roxbury, Massachusetts named Shabazz Napier were along for the ride. The following season, Calipari brought Anthony Davis and company to Monday night and then sent all of them into the NBA draft. Last year, while Kentucky's next group of future champions was bowing out in the opening round of the NIT, Louisville was winning a title for Rick Pitino with a group of veterans, led by senior point guard Peyton Siva and junior back court running mate Russ Smith.
You might think that the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats were the outlier, but there isn't any set formula. Well, there is, it's called playing as a team. And, so far, in this year's NCAA tournament, this destruction of Wildcats is doing just that. The reason for that is that they are playing with a purpose, with a cause, for each other. Saturday night, one national sportswriter wondered, via twitter, if Kentucky's players were more interested in winning Monday night or the upcoming NBA draft. It's actually a fair question, if you don't have any pre-conceived notions about the players. But, the answer gives you insight into why the Wildcats have been successful over the last three weeks.
There is business to be conducted and this group is all about business. The NBA can wait -- even if for just another eight days after the nets come down tonight.