[Moderated by Matt Jones]
After going three seasons and change without a home loss, I never expected to see Kentucky lose its home conference opener NO MATTER WHO THEY PLAYED. We can dissect individual performances, blame Coach Cal for not getting his players ready, or be piss-poor fans and say, “this is just a down year.” I’m not going to make excuses because like Coach Cal always says, “I’m not going to lie to you.”
When I look at this basketball team, I see more than enough talent on the floor. The EMU game gave me confidence that these Wildcats finally knew how to “get the job done”. In defining success and “getting the job done” it’s very simple for me: the team and players play well enough together that it evolves into a mechanical process. Remember last year? THAT is a mechanical team. They translated what they did in practice into games, making even the toughest plays look easy. I fully expected Camp Cal to mechanize this team into back-to-back big wins to start SEC play (with a few minor bumps). It has worked before, but what makes this team different?
The answer is simple: this team lacks a collective mental toughness. It can not be measured by Schuette’s stats or by Bob Knights white board drawings, but for a person that struggled with it through my playing career it could not be more obvious. Mental toughness is the ability to succeed when confronted with adversity. A wise man once told me, “It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you react to it.” The Cats simply have folded when presented adversity.
We saw the Cats almost lose to a terrible Vandy team, just because a few nobody’s hit some 3′s and the crowd got rowdy. I can give them some leeway because it is a weird environment and it was their 1st SEC road game (UK’s favorite time to lose is on the road in the SEC). However yesterday was one of the most disgusted feelings I’ve felt as a Kentucky fan in the Cal era. I can not blame poor defense for Elston Turner’s performance (he was definitely in his zone). When a guy is playing like that all you can do is force him to take 35-footers and hope he doesn’t make them (he still did). Elston Turner was a problem the Cats faced and how did they react? He scored a little less in the second half while they let A&M’s other big scorers Harris and Roberson to fill the stat sheet and nearly equate the Cats for points in the paint.
It wasn’t too ugly, the Cats had a tie ball game at 64 with about 3:30 to play. If you didn’t watch the game I bet you didn’t know that it was even remotely that close. I was forced to tune in on the radio, and couldn’t believe that a John Calipari team let Texas A&M get multiple runaway dunks to end a game at Rupp Arena. It’s simply unfathomable. How do they stomach someone doing that to them, ON THEIR HOME FLOOR!!!!!!!!!!!! The ball didn’t bounce the Cats way in the end: Turner hit a DEEP three with little time left on the shot clock. How did the Cats respond? Nobody could stand up to hit “the big shot” and a lack of leadership let the game get completely out of reach QUICKLY.
Previous teams have taken their respective lumps, and like Kristen I point to the 2011 team except my glass is currently half-empty. The 2011 team featured tons-o-freshman, but more importantly it featured victims of the Billy Gillespie era. I’d say that they had experienced adversity a time or two and knew how persevere. They also had a mentally tough PG in Brandon Knight that learned from his early season mistakes (missing game-winning shots on the road in the SEC) and turned it into success in March.
I am not going to completely write off this team, because although you can’t coach mental toughness it can be developed through game experience. Ryan Harrow was a weak individual but now is the best person in the backcourt with the ball in his hands. He learned earlier than Brandon Knight and improved his game dramatically, but I can’t imagine him being the guy to hit the game-winning shots for a Final Four team. Nerlens Noel has played like the #1 player in his class, but a center can not take control for a team when it is getting out of hand like a backcourt player. This team can put together spurts of mechanical greatness, but they will continue to take lumps until important players can manage the team when it experiences its toughest times.
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