UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball notebook: Is college game more showcase than competition?

Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis, left, moved the ball while being defended by UCLA guard Aaron Holiday during the first half in Los Angeles on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015.
Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis, left, moved the ball while being defended by UCLA guard Aaron Holiday during the first half in Los Angeles on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. Associated Press

With defeat becoming an increasing possibility at UCLA, the situation called for someone on Kentucky’s team to make a statement. Point guard Tyler Ulis answered the call. During a timeout huddle, he shoved freshman Skal Labissiere. Television captured this bit of eloquent body language.

The immediate message? C’mon, man. Get after it. We need you.

The big-picture message? Winning or losing matters.

Never mind the national audience on ESPN nor the 50th anniversary of Pauley Pavilion nor a crowd that included Hollywood glamor and basketball luminaries.

Ulis wanted to win, which is not to imply that Labissiere was indifferent. Labissiere is still taking baby steps in his development as a player.

It’s just that, in a general sense, caring about winning can seem quaint at a time when branding and rankings and projections and analytics and potentially lucrative pro contracts reign supreme.

When it was suggested that college basketball was becoming more showcase than competition, Len Elmore said, “I wonder the same thing about competitiveness.”

There are still players like Ulis who care about winning, the former Maryland All-American said. But with all the talk about the need for more grit and fight, you have to wonder, again in a general sense, how important winning is.

They’re out there to show what they can do because college basketball is just a way station. It’s part of the journey. It’s not the destination. And that’s a shame.

Len Elmore, sportscaster and former NBA player

“It’s not about winning anymore,” Elmore said. “Sure, they say they want to win. But it’s about showing what they have so they can rise in the rankings or somebody can assign a blue chip next to their name.”

Elmore wondered aloud if the many games played on the AAU circuit and with travel teams dulls competitive spirit. “They lose, it’s no big deal,” he said. “We’ll play another game.”

The presence of television and NBA scouts, especially at a game like Kentucky-UCLA, surely activates a watch-me impulse.

“They’re out there to show what they can do because college basketball is just a way station,” Elmore said. “It’s part of the journey. It’s not the destination. And that’s a shame.”

South Carolina Coach Frank Martin has voiced similar concerns. Player rankings, YouTube highlights and television top-10 lists are not about victory or defeat, he said.

“Everything’s very individualistic,” he said, “and it’s a shame.

“It’s a team sport. It’s about playing for each other, about giving of yourself, about learning how to sacrifice so it can be better for somebody else. That’s what sports taught me growing up.”

Back to the Ulis shove, Elmore said he did not see it.

“But I can imagine it,” he said. “That’s leadership.”

History in the making?

On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal projected the possibility of basketball history being made next spring. After declaring that LSU freshman Ben Simmons is college basketball’s best player, the newspaper said he could become that rare player who never played in an NCAA Tournament and was the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft.

So far, both player and team are doing their part to make that happen.

Noted numbers cruncher Ken Pomeroy projected LSU’s final record as 14-17. At mid-week, LSU had a 4-4 record against what The Wall Street Journal called “one of the nation’s weaker non-conference schedules.” Pomeroy ranked the Tigers No. 99. At mid-week, LSU had a Ratings Percentage Index of 208. The return of shooter Keith Hornsby from injury and the addition of Arizona transfer Craig Victor II at midweek might blow away the gloomy projections.

Only two freshmen have had a better player-efficiency rating than LSU’s Ben Simmons: Anthony Davis in 2011-12 and DeMarcus Cousins in 2009-10.

Meanwhile, at midweek Simmons was averaging a double-double: 19 points and 14.8 rebounds. Of course, it’s early, but The Wall Street Journal reported that since 2009, only two freshmen have had a better player-efficiency rating. Both played for Kentucky: Anthony Davis in 2011-12 and DeMarcus Cousins in 2009-10.

A dubious bit of basketball history will be made if LSU does not play in the 2016 NCAA Tournament and Simmons is the first college player chosen in the 2016 NBA Draft.

Since 1985, when the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams, only once has the first college player chosen in an NBA Draft not played in that year’s NCAA Tournament. That player? Michael Olowokandi of Pacific. He was the first overall choice in 1998. Pacific did not play in the 1998 NCAA Tournament. Pacific did play in the 1997 NCAA Tournament, losing in the first round.

So Simmons can stand alone as the only college player to be a first overall pick and never play in the NCAA Tournament.

The Wall Street Journal cited two examples of freshmen who never played in an NCAA Tournament and became first-round picks: Noah Vonleh of Indiana in 2014 and Spencer Hawes of Washington in 2007.

‘Great Xmas present’

UK Coach John Calipari tweeted a question on Tuesday: “Still looking for that great Xmas present?”

He then recommended Let’s Ball, the highlight tape of UK’s 2014-15 season.

The DVD chronicles Kentucky basketball’s attempt to make history with the first 40-0 record. The unusually deep and talented roster not only motivated a platoon system of substitution but also the idea of a video record of the season. Both the platoon and video ideas were tested or born during the team’s preseason trip to the Bahamas.

About 400 hours of video was shot. Editors needed about two months to produce a two-hour video.

All the while, planners knew a loss would rob the project of its historical hook. Of course, the Cats lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four.

“Definitely a Debbie Downer not to win it all,” said Tim Asher, UK’s basketball video coordinator. “But the video is more about the story (of a season) than the 40-0 scenario.”

On the plus side, Kentucky did make history. Winning the first 38 games was an unprecedented achievement for a college team.

10-0 start

After Friday night’s win at rival Clemson, South Carolina is 10-0 and on the cusp of breaking into the top 25.

“We’ve got older guys that have been through it,” Coach Frank Martin said prior to that victory. “They understand what you want. You understand them.”

The resurgence is a long time coming. South Carolina hasn’t played in an NCAA Tournament since 2004, and not won an NCAA Tournament game since 1973.

This season’s veterans formed the core of a team that finished with a 17-16 record last season. That marked South Carolina’s first winning record since 2008-09.

Generally, experienced players play better than they did as younger players. That’s something to keep in mind as Kentucky players develop.

“They don’t give in to bad plays or don’t overreact to good plays,” Martin said of his veterans. “They just kind of stay the course.”

Martin acknowledged that South Carolina hadn’t played “like an unbelievable schedule.” The Gamecocks had beaten Norfolk State, Oral Roberts, DePaul, Hofstra, Tulsa, Lipscomb, Western Carolina, South Florida and Drexel.

“But we haven’t played a bad game either,” he said.

The numbers suggest solid, all-around play. Prior to Friday’s game, South Carolina had five players sporting double-digit scoring averages.

I believe you win the game at the rim. Whoever gets to the foul line wins the game.

South Carolina Coach Frank Martin, on their 10-0 start

Defensively, the Gamecocks had limited opponents to 38.2 percent shooting and outrebounded the opposition by more than 10 per game (41.7-31.4). Opponents had more than 40 more turnovers (145) than assists (104).

Most importantly, from Martin’s viewpoint, South Carolina had made almost as many free throws (182) as opponents had attempted (184).

“Because I believe you win the game at the rim,” he said. “Whoever gets to the foul line wins the game.”

Hall makes changes

On Monday, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will announce the nominees for the class of 2016. The announcement on which people will be enshrined next year will be made April 4 at the Final Four in Houston.

The Hall of Fame made changes in how it goes about picking nominees. The time required to no longer be an active player was reduced from five to four years.

The Hall also disbanded a committee set up to review players, coaches and officials from the American Basketball Association. That means Rupp’s Runt Louie Dampier, a member of the class of 2015, will be the final player enshrined through the ABA committee.

In a statement, Jerry Colangelo explained.

“Over the past five years, the ABA Committee has fulfilled our promise by honoring legends such as Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown, Bobby ‘Slick’ Leonard and Louie Dampier,” said Colangelo, chairman of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Former ABA players remain eligible for consideration through other committees.

Fundraiser set

Before he worked UK’s game against Arizona State last weekend, Dick Vitale distributed information on his 11th annual fundraiser to benefit The V Foundation for Cancer Research.

The event will be May 13 at The Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, Fla. Honorees will be Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, ABC broadcaster Robin Roberts and now-retired Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan.

Reservations can be made by calling 941-350-0580. More information is available at two websites: dickvitaleonline.com or dickvitalegala.org.

Grandkids?!

Here’s a reminder of how time marches on.

Dan Issel, the career scoring leader for UK men’s basketball, was in Lexington this month. He attended practice on Dec. 11.

Accompanying Issel to practice were two of his grandchildren, ages 13 and 11.

Happy birthday

To Jeff Brassow. He turns 45 on Sunday (today). … To Roger Harden. He turned 52 on Saturday. … To Eric Manuel. He turns 48 on Monday. … To Wendell Lyons. He turned 63 on Thursday. … To Myron Anthony. He turned 38 on Friday. … To former Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury. He turns 56 on Wednesday. … To former Arkansas Coach Stan Heath. He turned 51 on Thursday. … To former Georgia Coach Ron Jirsa. He turns 56 on Monday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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