Some UK fans need a reality check

BLINDED BY EXPECTATIONS

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 4, 2009 

The following popped up in the blog comment box from a reader after Kentucky's first exhibition basketball game Monday night:

"So in two months we'll be better? WHAT DOES THAT mean about UNC and UConn?

(His caps, not mine.)

That came after a weekend of listening to Kentucky football fans complain that Rich Brooks is too old and Joker Phillips too inept for the grid Cats to ever "take it to the next level," whatever that means.

Today's sports fan doesn't need a better seat, a cheaper beverage or more games in high-def.

Today's sports fan needs a reality pill.

It's all about expectations and, at UK, expectations have drifted over the line of sanity.

Start with basketball.

Yes, Kentucky committed 23 turnovers Monday night in that 74-38 exhibition victory over Campbellsville.

And when most thought the Cats would easily top the 100-point mark against the overmatched NAIA Tigers, John Calipari's team struggled to put 74 on the board.

But many fans were too busy readying the next championship banner to actually listen to their coach.

From the day he arrived, Calipari predicted his team would start slow. It would chuck the ball all over creation in the early going. It would struggle.

After all, Calipari has six new players who have never played in the dribble-drive motion offense. And he has seven holdovers who have never played in the dribble-drive motion offense.

"We've still gotta figure out a lot of stuff with this team," he said Monday night.

That is to be expected and could continue. If the Cats struggle or even lose to North Carolina and Connecticut in early December, so what, if that's the progression toward the team peaking when it counts most.

This brings us to football, where, yes, the Cats could have beaten Mississippi State last Saturday.

The defense was inept at stopping the run. And it's difficult to fathom why the coaching staff went away from its best player, certainly on offense, Randall Cobb, when UK enjoyed a first-and-goal on the State 4-yard line early in the fourth quarter.

But football followers who were convinced pre- Mississippi State that the Cats would run the table now fear that the team won't reach bowl eligibility and that Brooks might not be the man to get the job done.

Truth is, Brooks already has completed one job. He's raised a probation-riddled program to competitive status. Kentucky isn't the consistent 65-0, 73-7 joke of the past or the one-trick pony of the Hal Mumme era. It's a solid program built on a concrete foundation.

But as hard as it was for Brooks and Co. to raise the program to its current level, it will be much, much harder to take it to that next level.

Ask South Carolina, which thought hiring Steve Spurrier assured the promised land. Instead, the Gamecocks are still losing to Tennessee, even Vols dressed as jack-o'-lanterns.

Ask Mississippi, which fired a winning coach in David Cutcliffe a few years back — the same Cutcliffe who now has Duke 3-1 in the ACC — and thought it was on the brink of a breakthrough this year. Alas, the Rebels are 2-3 in the Southeastern Conference after Saturday's 33-20 loss at Auburn.

Here's reality: In the 18 years since SEC expansion, either Florida or Tennessee has won the Eastern Division 15 times. (Florida just clinched its 10th division title.) On the Western front, either Alabama or Louisiana State has won 10 titles. One or the other is a lock to make it 11 after Saturday's matchup.

In other words, if it were easy, every team would be doing it.

No fan talk. Just reality.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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