A life-and-death issue brought Hall of Famer Bill Walton to Kentucky in September. During an appearance at a Lexington hospital, he championed a surgical procedure that restored his will to live. A rapt audience listened closely as he talked about how a spinal surgery stopped his thoughts of suicide to escape immobilizing pain.
By contrast, another ultra-serious topic of conversation — Kentucky basketball’s inexperience in 2017-18 — reduced Walton to belly laughs. The I’m-not-kidding question: How concerned should UK fans be about the upcoming team depending on eight freshmen, plus three sophomores who faded into obscurity in the second half of last season?
A wide smile crossed Walton’s face. Then he laughed. “Don’t ever worry about the Kentucky Wildcats under John Calipari,” he said as if instructing a child. “That guy has got it going. Please. Just like in life, don’t worry about the people at the top.”
To clinch the point, Walton quoted his coach at UCLA, John Wooden: “I’d rather have a lot of talent and a little experience than a lot of experience and little talent.”
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With six McDonald’s All-Americans on its roster, Kentucky has talent. But except for Wenyen Gabriel, who made only one of his final 19 shots last season, experience is microscopic.
Just how inexperienced is Kentucky?
Ken Pomeroy, college basketball’s most noted numbers cruncher, began calculating experience in the 2006-07 season. He said that Kentucky could be the most inexperienced team he’s ever dissected. For now, that distinction belongs to The Citadel team of 2007-08. Its players averaged 0.27 seasons of previous college experience while — gulp — losing 18 of its final 19 games en route to a 6-24 record.
When you talk of young teams and experience, you’re trying to teach them that fine line between winning and losing, and how extremely fine it is. And how you’re trying to teach them to play every possession.
Rick Barnes, Tennessee head coach
As for UK, you divide the three seasons of collective experience of the 11 scholarship freshmen and sophomores to get an average experience of — ahem — 0.27. (Pomeroy said he won’t officially begin working up his experience numbers for 2017-18 until the first games are played. He acknowledged that his calculation is imprecise. For example, Robert Williams of Texas A&M, the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, and UK’s Sacha Killeya-Jones, who did not play after Jan. 21, will each count as having one season of previous experience.)
When asked what message that unofficial 0.27 number sends about the latest collection of Kiddie Cats, Pomeroy said, “I think it means that they will improve more than other teams as the season progresses.”
Calipari has tried to tamp down the assumption that his past success with freshmen automatically means more such success this season. He’s likened his work with freshmen to undergoing multiple root canals. You may be familiar with the process, but it still hurts.
Someone else who knows about these basketball root canals is Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes. His Texas Longhorns of 2006-07 are fourth in Pomeroy’s rankings of least-experienced teams (0.41). His Texas team of 2012-13 is sixth (0.44).
“My concern at that time was we had built the culture at Texas that we really had players who understood hard work,” Barnes said of the 2006-07 season. “So not only are you concerned about losing your (experienced) players, you were concerned about the culture.”
The message: talent alone is not enough. Calipari said much the same thing about UK players needing to learn how to win. Barnes said he shared with his players how thin the line is between winning and losing. Effort on each possession can make a big difference.
Prefacing what his research revealed, Barnes said, “This is going to blow your mind.”
Four more “stops” could have moved a team from No. 125 to the top 10 in defensive efficiency, he said.
A Texas team would have led the nation in fewest turnovers by committing three fewer per game.
By achieving those goals, “we’d have won between four and eight more games,” Barnes said. “That’s how fine a line this stuff is.
“When you talk of young teams and experience, you’re trying to teach them that fine line between winning and losing, and how extremely fine it is. And how you’re trying to teach them to play every possession.”
Barnes said he could guarantee that Calipari is emphasizing this fine line with Kentucky’s players.
“Telling guys this is not going to be as easy as you think it is,” the Tennessee coach said.
Kentucky is Kentucky
Auburn, which had freshmen as its four leading scorers last season, learned how difficult the transition from high school to college can be. Pomeroy ranked the Tigers behind 331 Division I teams in terms of experience.
“They don’t know what they don’t know,” Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said. “Freshmen have no idea how hard they’re going to get hit in the mouth. They just don’t.
“The biggest challenge is not offensively, because offensively these guys come in ready to play. They’ve got skills. They’re bigger, stronger, faster. They’re well-coached. They can score.
“The biggest challenge is on the defensive end. It’s night and day between high school seniors and college freshmen on the defensive side of the ball.”
Of the 10 least experienced teams in Pomeroy’s rankings, seven had losing records (averaging 15.1 games below .500). The exceptions are UK in 2013-14 (29-11), Texas in 2006-07 (25-10) and UConn in 2006-07 (17-14).
More than one SEC coach pointed out that Kentucky is Kentucky. The regular rules about inexperience do not apply, or at least apply less with exceptionally talented freshmen.
“It’s incredible the job that he’s done,” Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy said of Calipari. “And it also helps that his guys can dribble, pass and shoot and jump real high and run real fast. That helps, too. Character’s important, but let’s not get it twisted.”
It’s such a huge jump (from high school to college). In almost all cases, it’s difficult. That’s where you have to tip your cap to John (Calipari).
Ben Howland, Mississippi State head coach
Barnes pointed out that his Texas team of 2006-07 had a freshman named Kevin Durant. That made a difference as the inexperienced Longhorns finished with a 25-10 record.
“We used to tell Kevin Durant at times ‘we need you to take this game over’ because he didn’t want to do anything to give his teammates the idea that he was selfish,” Barnes said.
Kentucky’s team of 2013-14, which Calipari likened to the current Cats, had freshmen as its top four scorers. Pomeroy ranks that team as the third-least experienced team in the last 11 seasons (0.31). That team had a 1-6 record against ranked opponents.
Then there’s Mississippi State, which ranked next-to-last nationally in Pomeroy’s ranking of experience last season. With good players, but no Kevin Durant, the Bulldogs struggled to a 16-16 record (6-12 in the SEC).
“It’s always difficult unless four of the top 15 players out of high school are coming every year,” Coach Ben Howland said.
Still, Howland added, even ultra-talented freshmen are not immune to the required adjustment to higher levels of intensity and preparation and longer seasons.
“It’s such a huge jump,” he said. “In almost all cases, it’s difficult. That’s where you have to tip your cap to John.”
What Calipari and Kentucky do with freshmen each season is “incredibly impressive,” Howland said.
All of Calipari’s eight previous Kentucky teams ranked outside the top 300 nationally in experience. The most experienced UK team, relatively speaking, played in 2010-11. Pomeroy ranked it No. 312 in terms of experience that season.
Of course, that UK team advanced to the Final Four, as did three other Calipari-led UK teams. The national champions of 2011-12 ranked No. 340 in experience.
The term “process” figures to get a workout this Kentucky season. Earlier this preseason, Dillon Pulliam talked about early “growing pains” giving way later in the season to “really impressing a lot of people.”
Barnes recalled a significant sign of progress with the Durant-led Texas team in 2006-07. It involved a loose ball in a game against LSU in Houston.
“I can close my eyes and see it happening right now …,” Barnes said. “Game on the line. A majority of my guys got on the floor to get it and kicked it ahead for an easy layup. Some of their guys who were established and had pretty good careers and pretty good reputations stood and watched.”
Message: Effort makes a critical difference. So does a one-for-all approach. Or to cite another Wooden quote that UK players might be wise to keep in mind, “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.”