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Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Don't call it a sophomore slump

By Johnette Howard
ESPN.com

Well, this is a tricky, sticky little wrinkle in time that Kentucky's basketball team and its coach, John Calipari, find themselves in. The Wildcats lost all five starters from last season's national title team. They have a recruiting class coming in next season that has been hailed as the best in college basketball history. But right here and right now, Kentucky's latest heralded and highly talented group of freshmen who were expected to pillage every college basketball town and village they visit -- then swiftly move along to the NBA, same as their predecessors -- have begun to hear that they will be the first of Calipari's four Wildcat teams to drop the baton.

This Kentucky squad is a pedestrian 12-5, unranked and still being talked about as a NCAA tournament bubble team though we're nearly into February. This team is not only absent from the Top 25 rankings -- it didn't receive a solitary vote in either the AP or USA Today Coaches polls this week.

Could this team be sagging under the weight of not just playing at Kentucky, but playing in the sort of highly accelerated talent incubator that Calipari has established there? Maybe, sophomore guard Ryan Harrow allowed after Texas A&M stunned the Wildcats at home two Saturdays ago to give this Kentucky team as many losses at Rupp Arena (two) as Calipari has had in his first three Kentucky seasons combined. Are these Wildcats starting to feel a little flop sweat for the first time in their blue-chip careers? Could be, agreed freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein, who looked at Kentucky's five losses last week and admitted he didn't expect to lose that many games all season.

"I mean, we're Kentucky," he said.

Calipari
John Calipari will have to adjust his defensive scheme with star center Nerlens Noel out for the season.

"I think it is harder here," Harrow admitted after the A&M loss, "because you are supposed to get here and get out of here [for the NBA]. Basically, that's what it is. Maybe that's not what it is with this group and we have to accept that."

Calipari differed with Harrow on Monday when reminded of his point guard's remarks. "We don't recruit kids and tell them that," he insisted. Then the coach unspooled a long elaboration that was reminiscent of something he said last March at the Final Four when the controversial subject came up -- the NBA rule that forces players to spend a year in college before moving into the draft. Calipari, speaking more directly to his critics then, scoffed, "There's only two solutions to it: Either I can recruit players who are not as good as the players I'm recruiting, or I can try to convince guys that should leave to stay for me."

Calipari prefers to say he is running something closer to a dream factory rather than a brazen assembly line where basketball phenoms go to get a little sandpapering and polishing on their way to the pros. And if players happen to think he runs the best finishing school to get them to the NBA as well, why, that's OK with him too. He did not invent these rules. He's consistently made it clear he will not apologize for exploiting them better than anyone else. His position on all of this is old news.

There is a newer, more relevant question now: How does Calipari keep excelling in this hotter hothouse he's created, and at a place where the fanaticism surrounding the team was already off the charts? And how exponentially more difficult does that become to manage in real time when a team like this year's squad finally seems to be paying for Kentucky annually losing so many one-and-done stars to the NBA because it's been left without, as Calipari has put it, veterans to "mimic?"

"Obviously if they [players] have an opportunity to leave after one year, that's fine," Calipari said Monday. "But what the point is, is to come in here knowing this is not for everybody. This is the ultimate challenge in basketball, to play here … We graduated seven players in the last three years. So it's not just come in and come out.

"Now, you might have guys that believe that or think that," Calipari allowed. "But that's just the smaller picture. The reason you come here is to be prepared to reach your dreams, to be challenged, and to know that every game you play is someone's Super Bowl. Every game you play is sold out. At home. And on the road. And if you don't want that, this is not where you want to go."

Last season's national title team of three freshmen and two sophomores starting supposedly liberated Calipari from the need for defensiveness about this, same as he supposedly shed the rap of being just a guy who recruits like hell and then just rolls out the basketballs. The way he melded that team (which included Anthony Davis -- the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft) into an unselfish cast was hailed as validation of Calipari as a Coach with a capital 'C'. Even Bob Knight, a longtime critic, said Calipari showed enough chops to come in from the cold.

But here's the conundrum Kentucky and Calipari now face: The fact that Calipari runs the college game's most unapologetically straightforward NBA finishing school keeps drawing top recruits in waves because they believe no one is better or less conflicted about preparing them at warp speed to be a lottery pick in the pros. But drawing so many aspiring one-and-done players perpetuates (and even institutionalizes) the need for Calipari to keep up the high-wire act. For all of this to continue, he must continue to annually find a way to make it all come together right away.

This requires some great sleight of hand.

And so, rather than ask why Calipari finally has a young Kentucky team that looks ordinary, the more appropriate question is this: What took so long for this kind of season to happen?

Calipari can be guilty of grandiosity and embroidering the truth, but he was dead right Monday when he said, "I hate to keep hitting on it, but what we're doing has not been done. When you're trying to take on veteran teams with freshmen, it's just not been done. And it takes time. And I have to be even more patient than I've been with this team."

Nobody is feeling sorry for Calipari, of course. And this year's roster is hardly Operation Bare Cupboard. Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, and Archie Goodwin are all still projected to be Top 10 picks if they enter the NBA draft in June. Building teams this way is Calipari's choice. And Calipari has been resolute about saying he knows what's holding this team back, and how to fix it. "I've been doing this a long time," he reminds you.

After Texas A&M stunned Kentucky, Calipari publicly called his players out. He spoke of how, "The only thing that brings about a change is crisis." And "We may need to get hit on the chin three or four more times before they look at each other and say, 'It's not working this way.' … We're not totally bought in yet."

Kentucky-Texas A&M
Kourtney Roberson and Texas A&M wrestled a rare win away from Kentucky and Willie Cauley-Stein at Rupp.

He's been careful to say this doesn't make them bad kids. But he's harped on the need for the players to carve out the roles he's suggested rather than think of themselves. He's been on some of them to push through pain, to sustain effort for longer stretches of a game -- saying, in so many words, "Toto, you're not in high school anymore." He held out a carrot to his team -- "Now, if there is a change, my vision is there's no one late in this season that's going to want to play this team. If we get it right" -- but he also didn't spare them the sobering current reality: "Right now, it appears everybody wants to play this team."

Kentucky responded with wins last week over Tennessee and then at Auburn Saturday, a 22-point romp that Calipari numbered among the best this team has played. "They're getting it," he said Monday.

Noel is filling up the box score with rebounds, blocked shots, assists and steals, if not always points. Poythress needs some toughening up, but he reminds Calipari of a young Marcus Camby. Goodwin, whom Calipari would like to emerge as his perimeter defensive stopper, "played and drove to make his teammates better instead of just trying to shoot the ball. And then defensively, he took some pride in his defense. So now you have an attacking player who's taking pride in his defense versus a player who's taking bad shots and an unenthusiastic defender."

So that buy-in Calipari talked about -- is it starting to happen?

"First of all, let me say that when I say 'buy in', it starts with individual players -- that each individual has to accept his role and play the way the team needs him to play -- that's the first buy-in," Calipari answered. "That's been the hard one for us.

"The second buy-in becomes now we have to be in tune with each other and on the same page, and we have to buy in to how our team must play to win. Those are the two buy-ins all coaches go through…[That] and trying to get them to understand if you do that, I don't have to be on [you] every play. And they're starting to do it. And [last week] they had fun doing it. Like, they enjoyed playing. They bounced and jumped and they chest-bumped each other.

"We've been waiting all year for it."

Calipari doesn't mince words about why it didn't happen sooner with this team: "When you're concerned with how you're playing, and you miss two shots, it's hard to chest-bump somebody. If you're more about the other guys on the team, none of that matters."

He was on a bit of a roll now, talking faster, and it was easy to imagine that this is the sell job he gives to all his players in their living rooms or after they arrive at Kentucky. He embarked on a related "buy-in" tangent about how, "I'm trying to convince them that the wins and losses, they come and go. You're not going to be judged just by that. You're going to be judged by your effort, your fight, your scrappiness. At the end of your career, that's what they're going to look at. Did you have it or not? They're not going to say, 'He won 97 games and he lost 4.' "

Calipari was fudging a bit there.

The Wildcats are always judged by both style points and results.

The standards at Kentucky have been unforgiving since the days of Adolph Rupp right on through the reigns of Joe B. Hall and Eddie Sutton and Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith and the short, forgettable face plant of Billy Gillespie. The one notable difference now is Calipari's teams are clocked with an egg timer. They get about as much time to mature as microwave popcorn.

Is this a bit crazy? Sure. But Calipari can't really lament the culture or off-the-hook expectations he's created without destroying the potent mythology around the program that attracts all that talent in droves in the first place. Calipari is now in the delicate spot of trying to avoid destroying this team's confidence while not rolling back the gold-plated expectations his previous squads created. And the pressure is palpable all right -- even if he avoids that word and harps on having "fun." As he put it Monday, "I'm trying to get them to focus more on process and less on results."

Good luck with that, pal.

In-state archrival Louisville beat Kentucky earlier this season and is battling for the No. 1 ranking that Kentucky is usually chasing. Florida now looks like the class of the SEC, not Kentucky. Last offseason, Calipari couldn't resist talking at length about how he's scheduling Kentucky into big domes that host the Final Four to get his team used to playing in such big rooms for tournament time. Critics bleated how smug that was, as if getting there is some fait accompli.

It is hard to imagine Kentucky not making the upcoming NCAA tournament even if the Wildcats remain a bubble team. But doing some damage if they do get in? That's a far murkier proposition.

The SEC is only seventh- or eighth-best conference in country right now, and there are not a lot of opportunities left for Kentucky to fatten its RPI and get a higher seed come tournament time. The Wildcats, who play at Alabama Tuesday and at LSU later this week, do have stiffer regular-season tests against Mississippi State and Missouri, a rematch with Texas A&M and two shots at Florida.

Calipari insists his team made some joyful self-discoveries last week. But this Kentucky season isn't a blithe little experiment in self-actualization any more than Calipari's previous seasons were. This one's become a stretch-run sprint to the wire in which they can't afford many more slip-ups. There is pressure from day one, as this bracing, backstage look at the nervous first day of practice for these Wildcats underscored in October.

Eight national championship banners now hang in Rupp Arena. This season's squad is the first to walk through their just-renovated locker room over a piece of the floor that was used last season at the New Orleans Superdome when Kentucky won its last national title. It has to sting when you roll into a place like Auburn Saturday, rip off arguably your best victory of the season -- sophomore Kyle Wiltjer said the players got together in the huddle in the second half and told each other, "We need to start burying teams" -- and word still drifts back that Charles Barkley, who was at the game for some Auburn alumni festivities, nonetheless said on the ESPNU TV broadcast: "John Calipari's a friend of mine. I love him as a friend. There ain't one player on this Kentucky team who should go pro early."

There are eight weeks left before March Madness begins.

Only seven weeks until Selection Sunday.

Kentucky is more than just another team fighting to get off the bubble. It's a unique program caught in a wrinkle in time. And for once, Calipari's critics and supporters can actually agree on something. These Wildcats are facing a comeuppance and a come-down, all at the same time. More than ever, the way teams are judged at Kentucky is both a compliment and a curse.