John Clay: In one-and-done world, pressure on Cats to develop unrealistically fast

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 29, 2014 

Kentucky head coach John Calipari scolded Julius Randle (30) in the first half of the Kentucky at LSU men's basketball game at the Maravich Center in Baton Rouge, La.,, on Jan. 28, 2014. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff

PABLO ALCALA — Lexington Herald-Leader Buy Photo

It has to happen now.

Not this summer. Not this fall. Not next winter. Not next year. Next year, they'll be gone.

That's the downside of this one-and-done track Kentucky has ridden since John Calipari arrived at UK five years ago.

To be sure, the business model has had plenty of upside. There was the Elite Eight in 2010, a Final Four in 2011, an eighth national championship banner in 2012.

But the past two seasons have shown the downside of the strategy, the consequences of overhyped newcomers who can't quite live up to the bombastic expectations. We've seen the collateral damage of the ticking clock.

And the clock is ticking. We know it. The players know it. Calipari knows it. These days, the window of opportunity closes extremely fast. These days a Kentucky team has one shot at greatness before the refresh button must be pushed and we start all over again with another collection of newcomers.

UK's 87-82 loss at LSU on Tuesday night shouldn't be that big of a deal. It's hard to win on the road. The conference schedule isn't even half over. LSU presented matchup problems.

You could say this young Kentucky team has plenty of time to get it right, but it doesn't. Not when you know that no matter how they play, the likes of Julius Randle, James Young, Aaron Harrison and his twin brother Andrew are all headed to the NBA at season's end. That was the bargain all along.

It doesn't really matter if all four are ready for the NBA. Was Daniel Orton ready? Was Marquis Teague ready? Was Archie Goodwin ready? They wanted to go, that was their goal, so they went.

It doesn't really matter that not all top-ranked recruiting classes are created equal, or that the very idea of accurately ranking high school athletes from across the country in order of potential is impossible at best, farcical at worst.

Timely example: Russell Wilson will lead the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday's Super Bowl. Back in 2007, Rivals.com ranked the dual-threat quarterback out of Richmond, Va., as, oops, Wilson wasn't considered talented enough to earn a ranking. He was a two-star recruit.

This isn't to pick on a scouting service. It is an example of an inexact science.

At UK, there is no time for revisionist rankings, however. The shelf life is short. The sense of urgency is great. The pressure is intense. You can see it in the players who seem to be having little to no fun. You can see it in the head coach.

Ron Higgins of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans knows John Calipari well from their days in Memphis — Higgins was a writer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal; John as coach of the Tigers. What struck Higgins on Tuesday night was Calipari's impatience with his players.

"On this night," said Higgins via e-mail, "they looked like a bunch of freshmen all trying to make plays to avoid catching Cal's wrath."

Can you really blame Calipari? He can't afford to wait until Randle's sophomore season for the Texan to develop a perimeter game. He can't afford to wait until next year for Andrew Harrison to learn on which side of the floor he should be positioned. He needs these young birds to soar right now.

His hip is bothering him, true, but you can see all this taking its toll on Calipari, as you might expect from someone who is constantly coaching first-year players.

They may have to rename Cal's post-game interview with Tom Leach "The Kenny Payne or John Robic Show."

Next up is a Saturday game at Missouri. It is UK basketball's first visit to Mizzou. A Wednesday check of StubHub showed tickets priced as high as $280.

It's not over until it's over, of course. Despite the wobbles, this team is superior to last year's team. There's not another NIT trip in my crystal ball. Where there's talent, there's hope.

"I just wish we were farther along," Calipari said Monday before his team made the trip to the Bayou.

After all, the clock is ticking.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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