Saturday, December 1, 2012
Updated: December 2, 10:10 AM ET
These young Cats have a lot to learn
By Dana O'Neil
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The people who didn't shuffle up the stairs and head for the exits early just sat in their seats, staring vacantly into the distance in a silence almost as deafening as the noise that filled the building minutes earlier.
Dazed and confused, the Kentucky fans at Rupp Arena simply could not wrap their arms around what had just happened.
For 55 games, there was a simple routine. Dress in blue, grab your ticket, head to the arena, take a seat, cheer, go home and toast the victory. The last time anything else happened was in 2009 -- 1,363 days ago to be exact -- back during the Billy Gillispie Era, which around these parts is referred to as the Dark Ages.
Yet here we are. National championship banner blowing in the rafters, another elite recruiting class on the floor and a scoreboard that reads Baylor 64, Kentucky 55.
As John Calipari kept saying about his team's abysmal play after the game, 'What?'
Yep, hell froze, the fat lady sung and the Grinch actually made off with Christmas.
Bookended with an effortless road loss to Notre Dame, this is the nastiest tasting dose of reality that Big Blue Nation has had to down since Calipari rode in to save them from the Curse of Clyde.
Back-to-back losses for the first time since February 2011, the lowest-scoring games in Calipari's coaching tenure, his first home loss, the end of the winning streak, more losses on Dec. 1 than in all of last season and, perhaps most troubling of all, the nagging question that is sure to be repeated over and over on talk radio shows and at dinner tables this week:
What in the world is wrong with this team?
Calipari talked about a lack of competitive spirit and will to win. The Wildcats missed bunny shots. Kyle Wiltjer was 1-for-9 from beyond the arc.
Those are all potential explanations, but the most honest assessment came from freshman Willie Cauley-Stein.
"I think we needed this, personally," he said. "We won a national championship last year, and we came in here thinking we were that team. We are not that team."
They never were, frankly. That team, the one from last season, was once-in-a-decade talented -- 6-11 guys with soft hands who can dribble with as much ease as they can reject shots aren't sitting on the shelves at Wal-Mart.
But the problem with success, when one great freshmen class begets another, is that it's hard to remember that not all freshmen are created equal, even for the people in the middle of it all.
Entitlement happens. Right now, it's happening here.
"I would say it's us not going out there and trying to beat them as bad as they want to beat us," Archie Goodwin said. "Every game that we are going into, they are looking to try to come at our heads the hardest because of the name across our chests. As a team, we don't go back at them the same way."
The group assembled here a season ago was incredibly gifted individually, but what made those Cats uniquely special was how good they were collectively. No one cared who scored or who got numbers. They passed the ball as effectively as they shot it.
That is not this team -- at least not yet. 2012-13 Kentucky is disjointed and tentative, and the numbers bore that out: 21-for-71 from the floor, 4-for-22 from long range, 16 turnovers, 20 offensive rebounds yet only eight second-chance points.
Except Baylor's weren't any better. The Bears were just 6-for-20 from 3, coughed the ball up 19 times, were smoked on the glass by 10 and yet won their first nonconference road game against a top-25 team in program history.
|Kentucky has already lost more games (three) than it did all of last season.|
Back to Calipari: What?
"We came in here off a loss too, and nobody wants to lose two in a row,'' BU's Cory Jefferson said. "It came down to who wanted it more, and we came ready.''
If that doesn't set off red flares around the Commonwealth, it ought to.
The Wildcats came into Rupp on the heels of an ugly, flat loss to Notre Dame. At one point, they trailed by as many as 20 to the Irish. If that doesn't inspire, what will?
"I told them after, we are not a very good team and we don't have very good players right now," Calipari said. "Each individual player, you think about how you played, you're not very good right now. And I said, we can do what we want with this. We can be special, or we can be what we are right now, sitting in locker rooms after L's."
Figuring out which it will be is Calipari's most critical task, much more than drawing up a good offense to combat a zone (although that would be a good second on the to-do list).
This is certainly not a crisis -- those come in February and March -- but it may be the trickiest crossroad in what has been a pretty charmed tenure in Lexington for Calipari.
In his first season, Kentucky lost three games and went to the Elite Eight. Two seasons ago, the Cats lost nine games, but that team was sort of the team between teams, sandwiched between John Wall & Co. and Anthony Davis & Co. And it got to the Final Four anyway.
A season ago, they won it all.
This team is not the team between teams. It is the team after The Team, filled with highly coveted recruits and likely lottery picks. And it is 4-3, its only legitimate win against Maryland.
"Some of us don't like to lose, and some others -- it's not that we don't care, but it's just a different environment that we're not used to," Cauley-Stein said. "Here winning, it's everything. It's different. I don't know how to explain it."
|Baylor notched its first-ever nonconference road win against a top-25 team.|
It is the curse and the blessing of playing at Kentucky -- to those whom much is given, much is expected.
Multiply that blessing and curse times 100 for the head coach. Calipari has handled the pressure as deftly as anyone, but he has been aided by all that success. Now there are certainly not fractures -- barely even cracks -- but there are worries and questions.
Calipari built his reputation and résumé on getting players to the NBA -- the wall outside the office features guys in NBA unis as well as Kentucky unis -- but now he is tempering his role in all of this.
He doesn't, he said, have a magic wand. He doesn't get his players to the NBA, he said. They get themselves there with hard work, effort and a competitive spirit.
Calipari is quick to remind people that coaching a bunch without a single player who started a game a season ago is hard.
Those are all fair, honest and accurate assessments. But this also is the way Calipari designed it, so there's no disowning it now.
Last season, Calipari was lauded for winning with a nouveau version of the Grand Experiment, somehow coalescing a bunch of wide-eyed freshmen into a team that wasn't fazed by road games or wild crowds and convincing a group of highly skilled individuals that they could achieve all they wanted even if they sacrificed their individual success for the greater good.
His ability to capitalize on the fractured system of one-and-done redefined the road to college basketball success.
But that praise will quickly turn to criticism if the hockey line-changing theory of team-building doesn't work this season.
Because on this day, one certainty reignited -- fans here have the patience of a toddler told to eat a green bean while standing in front of a mountain of chocolate -- even while another -- that the Cats always win at home -- disappeared.
I think we needed this, personally. We won a national championship last year, and we came in here thinking we were that team. We are not that team.
-- UK's Willie Cauley-Stein