The late-season stagger of the Kentucky men's basketball season took a small positive turn Monday. On the weekly SEC teleconference, John Calipari told media members UK's struggles — including the defeats to mediocre Arkansas and horrid South Carolina last week — are "on me."
Besides being the right thing for the Kentucky coach to say to take pressure off the players, it also had the added benefit of being true.
Over the long term, what is likely to go down in UK lore as the "one and done" era of Kentucky basketball has created two dynamics around the program that seem to have become counterproductive.
Last month, when Calipari proclaimed Kentucky "the most overanalyzed team" in the history of sports, many dismissed it as typical "Cal-perbole." I think Calipari had a valid point, though the phenomenon he was describing has been massively intensified by the recruiting strategy he has chosen to employ.
Kentucky basketball teams have always been analyzed to the point of exhaustion. That comes with being a college sports program that is a statewide obsession. What has changed in the one-and-done era to magnify the scrutiny of the Wildcats is how short the time frame there is for UK players and UK teams to make their marks.
In a more traditionally organized basketball program, a team starting five true freshmen that was 21-8 — Kentucky's current situation — would be seen as a squad of exciting promise. Even if fans felt the team might not be headed for immediate post-season glory, they would feel good over what the squad could do in the future.
Yet because the program at UK now is organized around recruiting multiple players each season that are likely to turn pro after one year, everything has to be "now."
As Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress found last season and the Harrison twins are discovering in 2013-14, that compressed time frame leaves players subject to strident critiques if they aren't ready to play like college veterans in their freshman seasons.
The other consequence of Calipari so heavily promoting Kentucky as the quickest route to the NBA is that, whether it is the coach's intention or not, it creates a two-tiered perception of players.
When Calipari signed in-state standouts Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis as part of his ballyhooed 2013 recruiting class, the duo were immediately labeled by some as "program players." That term was applied because those two were expected to be in the Kentucky program for multiple years instead of being one-and-dones. To me, there's something lamentable about an approach that causes players apt to be with your team for the long haul to be diminished.
The irony for a school now synonymous with the one-and-done recruit is that Kentucky's performance has fallen off dramatically since older players in place when Calipari came to Lexington have cycled out of the program.
With some combination of Patrick Patterson (three years in UK program), DeAndre Liggins (three years), Josh Harrellson (three years) and Darius Miller (four years) mixed in with Cal's elite one-and-done talent, the coach's first three Kentucky teams went 102-14 overall, 40-8 in SEC regular-season games and 26-4 versus teams ranked in the AP Top 25.
Since Miller, the last holdover Cal inherited, played his final game in the 2012 NCAA title game, Kentucky is 42-20 overall, 23-11 in SEC contests — and 3-7 against ranked foes.
Because of the extreme fan interest and pressure to win, I've always believed that being the men's basketball coach at Kentucky is, simultaneously, one of the best and one of the hardest jobs in major American team sports.
By implementing a model that requires both unceasing, all-out recruiting and teaching from scratch with essentially a new team every year, Calipari has made the job even harder than it normally is.
Over his long college coaching career, Calipari has proven nothing if not resourceful. He is apt to figure out a happy balance to make his model for UK basketball work again.
If he doesn't, the one-and-done era in Wildcats basketball will end up de-legitimized — which could be to the benefit of future UK coaches should they be inclined to run Kentucky men's hoops like a traditional college program again.