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In defense of the 2017-2018 Kentucky Wildcats


© Jim Dedmon | USATSI

Since Kentucky lost to South Carolina on Tuesday night, there has been no shortage of commentary on what’s “wrong” with the Wildcats. However, no voice (outside of John Calipari’s) was louder these past few days than of than ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg’s.

By now, you’ve almost certainly heard what Greenberg said (as well as his response on Kentucky Sports Radio Thursday), but for the sake of this article, let’s reiterate what Greenberg said about these Wildcats. The video clip is below and here is the actual transcription:

“To me, we spend all our time talking about the freshmen: DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, the great Kentucky freshmen, instead of maybe talking about the best teams, because these guys are not the best teams. Why don’t we spend some time talking about the Villanovas, that are connected, the Purdues? What Virginia’s doing… I think we need to start talking about the teams that are really good.”

Then he moved onto Kentucky specifically:

“These guys are spoiled by the process by the time they turn 13 years old,” Greenberg said. “And they’re clueless in understanding how hard you have to play and what type of teammate you need to be. They’re not a good team because they are not connected, and you may say it is because they are freshmen, and that sounds great but they aren’t connected because they are all about themselves instead of the good of the group.”

Now for starters, let me make a few things clear: One, it’s important to note that Greenberg did in fact scale back his comments, during an appearance with Kentucky Sports Radio just a day or two ago. I also don’t believe that his words were intended to be malicious; I genuinely think that a TV producer asked him to talk about Kentucky, and he’s probably pretty tired of it, since right now there are other stories in college basketball worth discussing. I should also say that while I don’t “know” Seth Greenberg, I genuinely like his analysis on TV. He’s smart, prepared and thought-provoking. In other words, he knows his stuff.

Therefore the following article isn’t intended to be a shot at Greenberg, but instead, a conversation about his comments. He’s certainly not the only person who has called Kentucky some variation of “entitled” or “not hard working.” But his voice is certainly the loudest.

Of course while his voice is loud, I also don’t know that it is correct. As a matter of fact, in this case, I genuinely, 100 percent disagree with Greenberg. `

For one, criticizing the broader AAU culture is, in a general sense, a fair bone to pick… but I’m just not sure if it’s a fair bone to pick with this particular Kentucky team. That’s because while some players in this group were AAU darlings who have been coddled since their early teens, the simple truth is this team isn’t full of those kinds of guys. If anything, it’s the opposite. This team is full of grinders, who have slowly worked their way up the rankings throughout their high school careers.

Just as an example, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – who just so happens to be the best player on this Wildcats’ team right now – was one of the lowest ranked recruits Calipari has EVER brought to Kentucky. He has thrived since getting to college in a way that no one expected. Wenyen Gabriel didn’t blow up as a national prospect until the summer before his senior year of high school. Kevin Knox was a dual football/basketball star, until he literally grew out of football and into a Top 10 prospect nationally in hoops. P.J. Washington may have been a McDonald’s All-American, but he is also a coach’s son who cut no corners in the process of getting there.

Beyond just the comment on AAU culture, I also have a problem with the broader concept that Kentucky doesn’t play hard, something I’ve heard quite a few people say (not just Greenberg). I honestly just don’t get it. This team has a lot of issues, including communication on defense, scoring droughts and giving up late leads. But despite all those warts, I’ve never gotten the sense that their problems stem from effort. If anything, they stem from a young team that thinks they’re giving it their all, but probably still have something in the tank. As John Calipari often discusses, that is a common problem for a team this young, regardless of whether they’re wearing a Kentucky uniform or someone else’s.

Therefore, if you asked me to diagnose this Kentucky team with one singular problem, it isn’t their AAU upbringing, or general disrespect for hard work, team play or their teammates. It’s simply age. They are the youngest team in college basketball, and they’re playing in a rapidly improved SEC. While I wouldn’t quite call that a “recipe for disaster” (since no team that is 14-4 can be considered a “disaster”) I would say that it definitely “ups the degree of difficulty.”

As a matter of fact, as Nick Coffey and I discussed on the latest edition of the Aaron Torres Sports Podcast (if you’re not listening, shame on you!) not only would I say this Kentucky team isn’t underachieving right now, I’d actually argue the opposite. I think you could make a legitimate case that they’re overachieving right now.

It sounds crazy, but let me explain. And to do so, let me use a tweet I sent out after the Vanderbilt game. The details changed a little with the loss to South Carolina, but I think the point is still applicable.

Think about it in this sense: What if I told you there was a college basketball team that was 14-4. That sounds like they’re having a pretty good season, right? Now I told you that this 14-4 team has no bad losses, and in every single game, they had a chance to win with five minutes to go. You’d definitely think that’s a good team, especially when I told you that they have a bunch of really good (if not “great”) wins against projected NCAA Tourney teams (Louisville, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M) and that three of their four losses have come to teams that will probably make the NCAA Tournament (Kansas, UCLA and Tennessee). Two of those teams are currently ranked, and the team’s one “bad” loss came to a club that made the Final Four last year. Again, not bad.

And then, what if I told you… THEY’RE THE YOUNGEST TEAM IN COLLEGE BASKETBALL. You’d think their coach is a damn soothsayer, considering the circumstances.

But because it’s Kentucky, nobody sees it that way. They see a team that is underachieving; be it from the AAU culture, selfishness, lack of respect for their teammates or some other  yet-to-be-determined diagnosis.

I think at this point you see that statement is totally bogus, and that – outside of maybe Jay Wright at Villanova – there are a lot of coaches who would be happy to trade their “problems” for John Calipari’s.

Now look, does Kentucky have a lot to work on. Absolutely. I listed a bunch of stuff above. But just about every team in college basketball has something to work on at this point in the season. Look at Duke, who decided to stop playing defense sometime in mid-October. Or Kansas, which could easily have 5-6 losses right now. Or Michigan State, which has dropped two of their last three games going into Friday night’s game against Indiana.

So yes, there are problems. But are Kentucky’s problems because of selfishness, AAU culture or a lack of empathy for their teammates?

Absolutely not.

 

Article written by Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at [email protected] He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”

11 responses to “In defense of the 2017-2018 Kentucky Wildcats”

  1. Kat4Life

    I thought he was spot on…….and Diallo has to change to help this team, if he’s incapable of humbling himself and playing for the team rather than himself he should sit…….

  2. az1006

    I agree 100%, but I’m not at all surprised at the level of seemingly unfair scrutiny this team gets hit with. Whether it be by national pundits and their remarks, or Kentucky’s position in polls (which, in theory is meaningless, but does play a part in overall perception), this particular group has been unfairly criticized and held to a standard that simply doesn’t seem to apply to other teams. Take Kansas as an example…They lost 2 games on their home floor by double figures, and never fell out of the top 10. Kentucky was ranked in the top 10 (too high, I’ll admit), and lost to a UCLA team that has shown it’s better than its early-season performance would suggest, then tumbled almost out of the top 20.

    Wichita State just lost at home to SMU, and i’ll be shocked if they fall any further than 4-5 spots in the rankings. Again, I realize polls are only part of the equation, but I get the sense that poll voters (coaches, journalists, etc) were just waiting for Kentucky to slip up, so they could collective go, “See? We told you so.”

    One glaring factor that hardly anyone has even mentioned is the fact that Kentucky doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt when players are out. I’ll hear ESPN talking-heads discussing other teams, and they’ll say, “Well, when so-and-so comes back, this team will be dangerous.” Texas A&M is a perfect example. Every time they mentioned their losing streak, it was followed up by the list of players that were out. It’s as though the absences of Quade Green, Jarred Vanderbilt, Jemarl Baker, and Tai Wynyard haven’t even happened. The fact is, Kentucky has yet to play a single game this season with its full compliment of players, and we’re in mid-January. We already saw the impact Vanderbilt can have…Imagine if he’d been practicing throughout October and had played in every game. Perhaps we’ll see how different this team can look once he gets in true game-shape.

    I know people get tired of the “this team is so young” argument. But, with this group, it’s actually true. And when you couple that with the fact we’ve not been healthy, it adds a whole other piece to the puzzle that makes the criticism unwarranted, IMO.

    1. syrin23

      Absolutely, and you know come March, for the 10th year in a row, we will have the hardest path to the FF. I don’t why they hate UK so much, especially since we draw the most viewers of any team in the country. It’s like the NFL trying to keep Patriots out of the playoffs. Makes no sense.

    2. J-Dub421

      Spot on, az. I’m glad to know there are other reasonable people in our fan base because the negative nellies have been loud lately.

  3. TB112162

    Thanks Aaron but your not gonna convince most of these clowns on here who think they know more about basketball than Cal

  4. syrin23

    I actually agree with everything you say, but you are ignoring one MAJOR fact. The talent level and the hype coming in. These aren’t a bunch of freshmen that Tubby recruited. These are still the best of the best, and when you watch PJ throw three passes that looked like outlets for SC and led to dunks, you get frustrated. When you see a ridiculously athletic seven foot center MISS an uncontested dunk, you get frustrated. When you look at how high these guys are ranked as recruits compared to their competition, you get frustrated. Let’s play your game. What if I told you I was evaluating a team that started 5 players 6’5″ or taller, over half the team had wingspans over 7 feet in length, all could jump and run the floor like guards, but get out rebounded most games, what would you say? Lazy? Poor coaching? You are ignoring the fact that the talent size and athleticism doesn’t match with the game play we are seeing. I personally think we have a lot of elite level athletes, and very few basketball players. That’s why I am so glad we got a player like Tyler Herro coming in. Guy looks like a basketball player who is athletic. Not like an athletic guy playing basketball. Notice how all the highlight reel KSR links shows these 6’10” ridiculously athletic guys dunking on 6’2″ players? Is that supposed to impress? Show me a guy hitting 9 FT’s in a row or 3 threes in a row. How about a guy getting 3 steals a game and taking charges?

  5. Bluebloodtoo

    IMHO, the problem is not that they don’t play hard. It’s that they don’t play hard on every possession. That’s a skill/awareness that typically develops over time, so an argument could be made that this particular skill should not be expected from the typical freshman. However, Calipari warns every recruit that the expectations at UK are not typical, so i don’t think they get that excuse. Lack of veteran leadership could be a factor here, but accepting that excuse would be atypical for Calipari’s program. I guess my point is that the expectations for these players as defined by their coach is ” be the best version of yourself that you can be” and they all knew that when they signed up. He’s pushing them to be the best they can be. If they aren’t ready to be that, then the NBA probably isn’t a good fit for them yet.

  6. luke_emberton

    South Carolina and UCLA are pretty terrible losses but Seth is right this team isn’t connected RIGHT NOW but in March we’re lookin at a different team and a whole different story they’ve got talent but they just have to put it all together

    1. BigBlueMeade

      UCLA is not as bad of a loss as it seemed in December. This group will be alright.

  7. Ollie

    Part of the problem I see, is these guys don’t understand basketball or they don’t have game skills. They were talented enough playing against lesser competition that they could over come it.
    No one hardly ever cuts to the basket.
    A few weeks ago, one of the players caught the ball at the 3 point line, pivoted to face the basket. His man was 10 feet away from him and he did a pump fake, WTH?!?!??! So that tells me, they are doing the basic fundamental drills in practice, but they aren’t understanding what the drills are supposed to be teaching them.
    I was very excited when Vanderbilt got in the game on Tuesday. We finally saw someone drive into the paint and kick the ball out to the open man.
    If a few of them knew how to jump stop and just shoot a short jumper without charging, they would be amazed how easier it is.
    Watch on a fast break, almost all of the time, who ever has the ball is shooting. There hardly any time that someone gives the ball up for an assist. I don’t think it’s because they are selfish, I think it’s because they don’t know how to pass and run a fast break.
    And I hate getting on any kid publicly, it’s why I don’t use their names, but one of them in particular appears to be to “cool”. It’s like he doesn’t want to embarrass himself if he was trying to hard. Just my impressions.

    1. syrin23

      We are perhaps the biggest team in college b’ball. When was the last time we had an alley oop dunk? Athletes, not basketball players.