Wildcats have lost traditional swagger

Clutch failures provide evidence of missing mojo

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 3, 2009 

After Kentucky lost to Mississippi State in Rupp Arena earlier this season, Patrick Patterson told the media about what was apparently an emotional venting in the UK locker room.

One of the laments that came up, Patterson said, was that "we aren't playing like Kentucky."

Actually, we're now into our fourth consecutive year in which Kentucky hasn't played like Kentucky.

I'm not buying the argument that what has ailed an increasingly mediocre UK basketball program can all be explained by talent level.

True, Kentucky does not have the overwhelming talent superiority it had during the mid-1990s Golden Era. But in the last four years, Patrick Sparks, Rajon Rondo, Randolph Morris, Joe Crawford, Ramel Bradley, Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson have all worn UK blue.

That's hardly a program devoid of talent.

In Meeks and Patterson, Kentucky presently has two of the best 25 players in all of college basketball. That should be enough to build a quality team around.

I think what Kentucky is missing is an intangible — the know-how to win; the belief that it is supposed to win — that used to be apparent any time UK basketball teams were in a tight spot.

Kentucky basketball has lost its mojo and its swagger.

The winning experience that has historically been handed down from one class of UK basketball players to the next is now extinct.

There is not a player on the current Kentucky roster who has ever played on an SEC championship team of any kind.

There is not a player on the current Kentucky roster who has ever played in the championship game of an SEC Tournament.

There is not a player on the current Kentucky roster who has ever played on a team that advanced past the first weekend of an NCAA Tournament.

Billy Gillispie's second UK team has had an especially acute case of "Kentucky not being Kentucky."

It showed in the season opener, when Kentucky fell behind VMI by 21 points, only to rally to take a 97-95 lead.

From that point, most Kentucky teams would have slammed the door on an underdog from a smaller conference.

This UK team fumbled away its momentum and lost 111-103.

The inability to close out tough games appeared again in what looms as an increasingly costly home-court loss to South Carolina.

In that game, UK had a three-point lead in the final minute.

In order, the Cats then blew a defensive rotation to allow Carolina a layup; a good Kentucky foul shooter (Perry Stevenson) missed two free throws to leave the door to defeat wide open; and Devan Downey marched right through with the game-winning shot.

Then came Saturday against LSU.

In the final 3:18 of a contest that UK and its shaky NCAA Tournament hopes really needed, Kentucky's best clutch shooter (Jodie Meeks) missed the front end of the bonus with the Cats clinging to a one-point lead.

UK's best feeder of the post (Darius Miller) threw the ball away trying to go to (an open) Patrick Patterson with the Wildcats still up one point.

With Kentucky down three and just over a minute to play, a wide-open Meeks missed a trey.

Then, to top off the failures to execute down the stretch, the Cats blew defensive assignments on LSU's final two baskets in what became a 73-70 loss.

(Gillispie bemoaned the inexperience of Miller and Kevin Galloway on the two failures against LSU's high ball screens. Perhaps if the coach had played the two more earlier in the season, they wouldn't have been inexperienced in such scenarios when it really mattered.)

In fairness to the current Cats, if UK had reliable point-guard play, a lot of the offensive problems late in games might take care of themselves.

The Wildcats did rally to beat Florida in a crucial game on a game-winning shot by Meeks (yet even then, UK followed up its heroics by fouling a Florida three-point shooter who happened to fail at the foul line).

Even though Kentucky lost on a buzzer-beater at Louisville, in that game the Cats actually out-executed the Cards in the final minute.

Still, those have been the exceptions to the rule.

What used to make Kentucky Kentucky is that, in the tough situations, the Cats played as if it was their birthright to win.

That's what has been lost. The longer this "Kentucky not being Kentucky" phase goes on, the less fear and respect you see from opponents.

The days of Chuck Hayes and "all he does is win" seem an increasingly distant memory.

Reach Mark Story at 231-3230 or (800) 950-6397, Ext. 3230, or at mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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