Time to have things figured out

Youth can slow progress, but the learning process has to be over now

Originally Published: February 9, 2014
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

After his Kentucky team dispatched of Ole Miss, Wildcats coach John Calipari was asked an innocuous question about the re-emergence of Willie Cauley-Stein.

He joked that perhaps his sophomore ought to reconsider being a blond and then used the question as a chance to preach from the pulpit about the perils of being a Wildcat.

"I said this after the game to the TV,'' Calipari said. "This is the most overanalyzed team I've ever seen in the history of the game, at any level, in any sport.''

The quote got a lot of run, with columnists and pundits dissecting and discussing it for its face value, and generated plenty of conversation about the amount of attention college basketball players -- particularly freshmen -- have been paid this season.

But it hasn't been fully appreciated for what it really was:

Masterful misdirection.

In the wake of Calipari's statement, while people analyzed whether Kentucky is the most overanalyzed team in sports and why Calipari said what he said, not nearly as many people analyzed the actual basketball product.

Which is exactly what the coach wanted and exactly what his team needed. Because, truth be told, any critical and honest analysis would have to determine these Wildcats aren't yet what we thought they'd be.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Jim Brown/USA TODAY SportsKentucky coach John Calipari has embraced the one-and-done culture of college basketball. But his teams can take time to mesh.

And they are running out of time to become who we thought they'd be.

"We've got a few feet, toes, fingers, elbows in the dike,'' Calipari said on the SEC teleconference Monday. "But we're getting better. The team's getting better. They're getting a better idea of how they've got to play to win. We're not hitting our stride yet, but we're still good enough to be one of the better teams.''

Kentucky is hardly alone here, and Calipari isn't the only coach singing the "we're getting better" refrain.

There are more than a few teams, each with equally high expectations and ambitions, facing the same time crunch, more than a few coaches hoping for and promising the same improvements.

But it is now Feb. 12, 32 days until Selection Sunday. The time to grow up, mature, congeal, coagulate or sing "Kumbayah" is about over.

"I'd say it's around 85 percent,'' Kansas coach Bill Self said. "If there wasn't some room to improve, Connecticut never would have won a national championship with Kemba Walker. But I think now you've got to be at the point where you're working on some things, not trying to improve everything and figure out who you are.''

This year, there seem to be more teams than ever still trying to figure things out.

Look at the preseason top 15:

1. Kentucky, 2. Michigan State, 3. Louisville, 4. Duke, 5. Kansas, 6. Arizona, 7. Michigan, 8. Syracuse, 9. Oklahoma State, 10. Florida, 11. Ohio State, 12. North Carolina, 13. Memphis, 14. VCU, 15. Gonzaga.

Who has lived up to or exceeded expectations? Syracuse, Arizona and Florida. Who has a tangible reason to argue it could make wild improvements in a hurry? Maybe injury-riddled Michigan State.

Otherwise you have teams that certainly could win a national title -- the NCAA tournament is as much about survival as anything -- but an awfully big group who are still trying to fit their jigsaw puzzle together in the eleventh hour.

[+] EnlargeMike Krzyzewski and Jabari Parker
Mark L. Baer/USA TODAY SportsDuke is largely reliant on freshman Jabari Parker. But the Blue Devils haven't improved their overall inside game much since their first game.

Why? You, at least in part.

Back when programs were built over a three- to four-year period, coaches knew what they had coming back and better yet, the players knew what they were supposed to do. Marrying the learning curve to the season's arc wasn't hard.

Now every season is a blank slate, like starting each year teaching how to execute a great bounce pass.

Look at the three teams that have weathered the storm the best. Syracuse and Arizona may have transcendent freshmen but they, along with Florida, also have older players doing the brunt of the work.

This used to be about the time that coaches would insist that freshmen were no longer freshmen. They'd had too much game experience, already been through too much, that they lost the right to sing the rookie blues.

That, of course, was before the game was overrun with and run by freshmen, back when teams had upperclassmen to carry the weight and help the first-year players along.

But now that the kids are in some places the majority and many places the superiority, the tune has changed.

"They're 18, 19 years old,'' Mike Krzyzewski said after his team's win against Georgia Tech. "They're never played at this level. They've never played the physicality. They haven't been as closely scrutinized as everyone's closely scrutinizing them. They've been promoted and marketed way beyond what they are but that's the way it is.''

The problem is, the game and the calendar haven't changed.

March still comes after February. The crunch still comes whether you're ready for it or not.

Teams have played more than 20 games now -- that's 800 basketball minutes. By now, players ought to understand that the game is harder than it was in high school, that taking a possession off gets you burned, that you have to work together, not individually, to win games.

And by now, identities have been carved. And even if X's and O's improvements can be made, it's hard to change the DNA.

Who was Kentucky? A team that, by its own coach's admission, didn't really know how to behave as a team and frequently lost its focus. Who is Kentucky? A team that, over the weekend, needed some wily veterans in the forms of Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson to remind them how to play hard in order to beat a woefully undermanned Mississippi State team.

Who was Duke? A team that relied heavily on 3-point shooting, counted largely on an uber-talented freshman, and had zero inside game. Who are the Blue Devils? A team that leads the nation in 3-point field goal percentage, is led in scoring by Jabari Parker, ranks 135th in rebounding and can count on Marshall Plumlee only when under duress.

Who was Kansas? A team that Self thought lacked a fire and a punch, in part because of youth and inexperience. Who is Kansas? On Monday night, the Jayhawks were outplayed and outhustled by Kansas State. Their star player was practically absent on the box score until Self got into Andrew Wiggins' grille and KU got going (caveat of no Joel Embiid notwithstanding).

Who was North Carolina? A wildly unpredictable team dealing with roster upheaval, one that has simmered down with five wins in a row but none against high quality opponents.

"You still hope you can get better,'' said Roy Williams, whose North Carolina team will get a nice barometer against Duke on Wednesday night. "But I don't think you'll see some drastic changes in us.''

Or, more than likely, anyone else out there.

Not that we'll stop analyzing.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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