Looking back, signs of Kentucky's troubles evident early

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 20, 2013 

MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Inadvertently, of course, a character in the movie comedy Blazing Saddles perfectly captures the scrambling improvisational spirit that was Kentucky basketball in 2012-13. There's a winning formula out there if only — if only — it can be found.

Or as Hedley Lamarr says as he ponders the possibilities of still getting what he wants after earlier schemes were foiled: "My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives."

UK Coach John Calipari must have thought like that this winter. Yes, he and the Cats ended up all wet. But he tried — oh, how he tried — to win big again this season.

Of course, he demanded that the Cats be tougher, compete harder, prepare better. He threatened benchings (an empty threat given the lack of depth). He spoke of how a fear of failure motivates and used one of the 2011-12 season's warriors, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, as an example to follow. Players shouldn't worry about shooting and scoring when Anthony Davis and MKG (ahem, the first two picks in the 2012 NBA Draft) didn't.

When emotional exhortations and established precedents didn't work, Calipari tried to persuade with cold, unfeeling science. The Cats counted calories as the UK coach welcomed the semester break as a chance to be free of the NCAA's thank-you-sir-may-I-have-another dietary restrictions. Improved play through more abundant nutrition. Plus, UK could promote its supposed outside-the-box thinking.

Calipari took it a step further by measuring heart rates. It's not merely the ever-demanding coach's perception that you're not working hard, the uncaring numbers say so. See?

That got quickly kicked to the curb, too.

To ease the mounting pressure, the Cats played dodgeball before a game last month.

Although Kentucky's season officially ended Tuesday night with a 59-57 loss at Robert Morris in the National Invitation Tournament, Calipari waved the white flag earlier in the week.

"I have no regrets," he said, "because I tried everything."

By Kentucky standards, the Cats were fair to middling this season. They became less when star freshman Nerlens Noel tore an anterior cruciate ligament at Florida on Feb. 12. Counting that game, UK had a 4-6 record the rest of the season. Two of the victories came against opponents with a generous, giving spirit — Missouri and Florida.

Calipari said the Cats "discombobulated" after Noel's injury. "We thought we'd recover," he said.

Truth be told, Kentucky was nothing special with Noel. In assessing the first UK team this season, the chair of the NCAA Selection Committee, Mike Bobinski, offered only a tepid, "When Nerlens was playing, they were a team that showed some signs of getting better. They looked like they were making some progress."

Then Noel, who almost single-handedly gave Kentucky its only significant road victory (a school-record 12 blocks at Ole Miss), went down. What followed hadn't happened to a UK team since 1910: five straight road losses, all by double-digit margins.

With or without Noel, Kentucky's season was a struggle. One of Calipari's buddies, ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, noted early on that Kentucky would not be overpowering. But he also suggested that Calipari would coach till the last dribble of the last game to somehow bring that about.

It began with ESPN's All-Access show taking a pseudo inside look at how Calipari was college basketball's Rumpelstiltskin. He could spin straw into gold, taking freshmen-oriented teams and making them national contenders.

As if to signal the trouble ahead, All-Access showed Calipari speaking sharply to point guard Ryan Harrow, who later spoke of the difficulties of dealing with high-volume coaching.

"If you can't take me — you know I care about you — how in the world are you going to take the people we play?" Calipari said in response. " ... Why you train like this is you sweat now so you don't bleed later."

High hopes early (Calipari likened Archie Goodwin to a "mini version of Russell Westbrook," Dick Vitale said) gave way to a sobering reality.

Morehead State Coach Sean Woods, a former UK hero, spoke of a "sense of entitlement" he saw in this season's players. True? "Maybe," Calipari said after the loss to Robert Morris.

But, he added, UK had a more fundamental problem. "Our skill set wasn't where it needs to be," he said.

Samford Coach Bennie Seltzer was overheard encouraging his players by saying it was the worst Kentucky team he'd seen. Marshall Coach Tom Herrion advised the Big Blue Nation "or whatever you call yourselves" to give the opponents some credit.

Calipari complained about Duke flopping, then later he ordered UK to flop (er, take charges) with Noel's shot-blocking presence gone.

Players turned off the Twitter accounts. "Bunch of negativity," Willie Cauley-Stein said.

A pre-season reference to Kyle Wiltjer being an effective point forward as a fast-break trailer (a la Larry Bird) turned to pleas for a more nasty approach and keener sense of anticipation (a la Larry Bird). Neither proximity to Larry Bird emerged.

Besides Noel, the player most likely to have made a lasting impact this season was Harrow. After his four-game leave of absence, he returned, presumably better equipped to deal with the double-barreled pressures of playing for Kentucky and following in the line of stellar point guards to play for Calipari.

"I couldn't stop smiling today because I'm just happy to be back out there," he said upon his return. Of what he could do to please Calipari, Harrow said, "He says I've just got to compete. Just compete. That's basically it."

That didn't happen.

After the season's penultimate game, Harrow strained to hold back tears and offered a sniffle-filled apology. Then he played only nine minutes against a Robert Morris team that breathed life into Jon Hood's comment about being "tough guys from Pittsburgh."

Kentucky's problems were well chronicled. No stopper (Elston Turner's 40-point performance in Rupp Arena). No go-to guy. No depth. No experience. And as Calipari repeatedly noted, not enough competitive fight.

Calipari lived and died, figuratively, by his credo to prefer talent over experience.

Julius Mays, the graybeard as a graduate student, cited "immaturity" as a contributing factor.

"They're used to someone fearing them," he said of his celebrated freshman teammates. "At this level, there's no fear."

Calipari lamented having to make compromises to try to get the best from the team. He vowed not to make similar compromises next season.

"We will be a tough ball team next year," he said. "We will be a tough, hard-nosed fighting team next year. I promise you that.

"Because I can't sit through that. I can't take it."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227 Twitter: @JerryTipton Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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